Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lush Hawaiian Epic Celebrates Aloha Spirit

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I'll be honest, I haven't been really thrilled with the books Elle has sent me to review so far. The majority have been depressing, profanity-filled diatribes that I suffered through only out of duty; one was so filthy I couldn't stand to look at it, let alone review it. So, when I opened up the newest batch of books from the magazine, I gasped in surprise and delight: right on top lay a glossy, hardback copy of Alan Brennert's new novel, Honolulu. The cover alone made me sigh. Having been swept away by Brennert's first book, Moloka'i (which I reviewed here), I stepped into this new story with eager anticipation. While it's not quite as affecting as its predecessor, Honolulu draws readers in with the same aloha charm, moving them with a story as dramatic and enthralling as the islands themselves.

The story actually begins in Korea in the early 1900s. Young Regret (so named because she is not a son) lives a life that is"typically Korean" (3). As a girl, she is expected to shadow her mother, learning to cook, clean, sew and otherwise serve the men of the house. Because males and females - even relatives - must be kept separate "like wheat from chaff" (4), she spends most of her time confined to the Inner Rooms of her home; when she does venture out, she must wear a veil so as not to attract male attention. Eventually, she will marry a man chosen by her father, re-locate to his family home, and serve him under the close scrutiny of her mother-in-law. Her future is as inevitable as the rise of the sun.

Or is it? When Regret spies a discarded newspaper, a whole new world opens up in front of her. The words intrigue her. If only she could attend school like her brothers, she would be able to decipher the mysteries of the written word. When her request for an education is vehemently denied by her imposing father, Regret takes matters into her own hands. Clandestine reading lessons allow her to dream of a life away from Korea. Opportunity knocks, and soon Regret ships out to Hawaii as a "picture bride" - a woman engaged to marry a man she knows only through the exchange of photos. Her excitement turns to dread when she realizes her intended is not the wealthy young man he purported to be. In fact, he's a poor plantation worker, who tends to talk with his fists. Still, she's hopeful that life in this exotic new world will give her what she craves - a chance to learn.

And learn she does. Regret quickly discovers that life rarely turns out as planned. From the plantations of Waialua to the brothels of Iwilei to the beach at Waikiki, she will gain her education. Joy and sorrow, shame and pride, fear and peace - she will experience it all as she comes of age on an island that's gradually making its own transformation. The tale that begins with the arrival of a naive picture bride to a "sleepy little port at the end of the world" (328) ends with a woman shaped by experience, beaming with pride at the thriving melting pot that is Honolulu.

Lush and lovely, Honolulu begs to be savored. While the story holds enough twists and turns to keep the story moving, it's largely plotless. Its beauty lies in its sense of place, its sense of culture, its sense of humanity. Character trumps all else here, and Regret is the kind of character we can all cheer - she's kind, hard-working and brave. Brennert paints the sights, smells and people of Hawaii so vividly, that she becomes a character in her own right. We see her rubbing shoulders with Regret as they both come of age in a time of great adventure and chaos. Brennert mixes in enough history to make the story believable, but not boring. The result is an epic story of Hawaii, a fitting tribute to the immigrants who came to her shores and made them their own. It pays homage to a place where cultures collided to create "a whole greater than the sum of its parts" (354). But, mostly, it celebrates life - well lived.

Grade: B

If this was a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, violence, some sexual content, and adult situations.

3 comments:

  1. I hadn't heard of this one. I love the cover, too. Thanks for the review.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

    ReplyDelete
  2. This book sounds really good! I've left you an award on my blog :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mmmm that sounds like a delightful read! I love the cover, it immediately drew me into this story. Thanks for recommending :-)

    ReplyDelete

Comments make me feel special, so go crazy! Just keep it clean and civil. Feel free to speak your mind (I always do), but be aware that I will delete any offensive comments.

P.S.: Don't panic if your comment doesn't show up right away. I have to approve each one before it posts to prevent spam. It's annoying, but it works!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin