Review: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

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When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?

I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed this novel. When Amaterasu meets the man who could be her grandson, the tragic story of what transpired between her, her daughter, and an enigmatic doctor slowly starts to unfold. I couldn’t really fault many of Amaterasu’s actions. While the motives were wrong (and that is what haunts her), keeping her sixteen year old daughter away from a much older married man who seduces her and has shown a penchant for being a lady’s man doesn’t seem like bad parenting. I struggled to sympathize with the doctor at all. While I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him to some degree, I really could find nothing likable. Sure he raises Hideo, but I think that has more to do with his guilt over the position he put his mother in. And his ongoing feud with Amaterasu seems to reveal that he never understood the initial hurt he did to her (and then she had to watch him doing to her daughter, in her mind). Are we supposed to forgive him because he claims he really was in love with Yuko? Would the whole situation been avoided if Amaterasu had been honest with her daughter in the beginning? Is Hideo really Amaterasu’s grandson? There are many questions left in the end, but the point isn’t so much getting answers as it is becoming reconciled that life doesn’t always give you the answers and sometimes it’s up to you to choose what you believe.

5 out of 5

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