Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Digging to America

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite novelists, so it's really no surprise that her latest book, Digging to Americais one of the best books I've read this year.

The story begins with two families waiting at the Baltimore Airport to meet the daughters they have adopted from Korea. The Donaldsons are white Americans, loud and noisy. The Yazdans are quiet Iranian-Americans. The two families become linked by this common experience, especially as Bitsy Donaldson insists on frequent social events to bring the two girls (Jin-Ho and Susan) together.

One of the most interesting themes in the book is what it means to be an American and how it is to be a foreigner living in America (though the Yazdans have been Americans for many years, they remain very connected to Iranian culture). Ziba and Sami change their daughter's name from Sooki to Susan, whereas the Donaldsons keep their daughter's Korean name, haircut, and dress her in native Korean clothing whenever possible. Bitsy is critical of the Yazdans for "americanizing" Susan, but I do believe that if you're a Korean kid with Iranian parents living in the United States, you're pretty darned multicultural even if your mom does put your hair in pigtails. There is a great scene in which Susan is singing a Korean folk song, wearing blue jeans, and preparing a traditional Iranian dish. Central to the discussion about foreignness in America is Maryam, Sami's mother. Maryam is reluctant to let these noisy Americans into her life and has even more misgivings when Dave Donaldson falls in love with her. Is there room for a quiet, thoughtful Iranian woman in all this tumult? Can she be an American and still be Iranian? Iran no longer feels like home to her, but she's still not ready to embrace the noise and clutter of American life.

The characters are all just fascinating. Especially entertaining is Bitsy, who is the absolute worst kind of judgmental, competitive mother. She's just the kind of woman I want to smack in real life, but Tyler writes her in such a way that I can see that her heart is in the right place. Nonetheless, I was cheering for her second daughter, adopted from China, when she resisted her mother's campaign to make her give up her binky.

This was a book I will absolutely read again.

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