Though they’re often lovely, harrowing or surprising, these lists will have limited appeal to readers pining for more extended narratives and more emotional investment in individual characters. The very best sections of the novel reminded me of the poetic catalogues in Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” but periodically the rhythm turns flat and the lists betray a kind of pedestrian pattern, as when the Japanese women recite everything they learned from their white employers: “How to light a stove. How to make a bed. How to answer a door. How to shake a hand. How to operate a faucet, which many of us had never seen in our lives. How to dial a telephone. How to sound cheerful on a telephone even when you were angry or sad. How to fry an egg. How to peel a potato. How to set a table.” How to hide my impatience?
Unfortunately, we learn the strategy of Otsuka’s variations on a theme too quickly: Many poignant experiences, interspersed with rare joyous ones, all presented in parallel sentences, leading to an emotional punch line that’s witty, forlorn or tragic. A chapter titled “Babies,” for instance, contains more than 60 sentences that begin “We gave birth . . . ”: “We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta.” Etc., etc. And then this devastating last line: “We gave birth but the baby had already died in the womb and we buried her, naked, in the fields, beside a stream, but have moved so many times since we can no longer remember where she is.” But our over-anticipation of that finale taxes its impact, as though we’re hearing a comic who sets up every joke the same way. Aware of the author’s effort to manipulate our sympathies, we gradually become inured to the story’s emotional power.