If You Follow Me

Like most people, I’ve been thinking about Japan a lot since the March  earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis. Among many other things, I’m reminded of a book I read last spring, If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous.

Marina is a young American English teacher in Shika, a rural town on the west coast of Japan. Throughout the novel, she struggles with her relationship with fellow teacher Carolyn, grief over her father’s suicide (she and Carolyn met in a college bereavement support group) and culture shock. The rules of gomi, or garbage disposal, are particularly complex. Marina seems destined to always get something wrong when throwing things out, as the book’s opening passage makes clear:

Dear Miss Marina how are you? I’m fine thank you. A reason for this letter is: recently you attempt to throw away battery and jar and some kind of mushroom spaghetti and so forth, all together in one bin. Please don’t try “it wasn’t me.” We Japanese seldom eat Gorgonzola cheese!

If you think disposing of cheese is hard, try getting rid of a stinky old refrigerator. Such a feat seems nearly impossible for Miss Marina.

The town of Shika is populated with many colorful characters, like an Afro-wearing, bling-sporting athlete in Marina’s class. A nuclear power plant looms large in the background, which is the main reason I keeping thinking of this book a year later. While If You Follow Me won’t offer great insight into the current situation in Japan, it does provide a comic and poignant glimpse into life as a foreigner in a town somewhat similar to those in the news lately.

If you’ve spent anytime living abroad, you’ll probably connect with Marina’s fish-out-of-water adventures. If You Follow Me is also a good choice for anyone with a weakness for coming-of-age tales or a real passion for hilarious stories of garbage disposal.


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