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Must-read novels for this spring

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, Scribner, US $27.00, Pp 384, March 2019, ISBN 978-1501154850
Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $25.00, Pp 304, February 2019, ISBN 978-0544808256

The Island of Sea Women is set in Jeju Island off South Korea over several decades, starting a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II and the Korean War. It continued during the chaotic period that followed the Korean War, to modern times. The story revolves around two friends — Mi-ja and Young-sook — who come from different social backgrounds. Mi-ja and Young-sook are close friends who work in the sea with their village’s haenyeo — an ancient guild of women. This is an all-female collective which is headed by Young-sook’s mother. Both friends find work very exciting. They also understand the danger involved in this job. Mi-ja and Young-sook may be the best friends but they also have differences and disagreements. The people in their village — like other villages around them — are caught up between warring empires. Mi-ja’s mother was a Japanese collaborator and the stigma has stuck to Mi-ja. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo — an ancient guild of women — and inherited her mother’s job of leading the divers in their village. The two friends had grown up together. It was unthinkable that their friendship will ever break up. But inimical forces push their friendship to the point where their bonds started coming apart. The Island of Sea Women is a story of a small community where the women are empowered by the income they earn from their diving, harvesting seafood to consume and sell, and being engaged in dangerous physical work while the men take care of the household. The haenyeo — women divers of Jeju Island — aren’t the usual female subservience. It is equally a story of women’s friendships. It introduces readers to the memorable female divers of Jeju Island and its history on a small Korean island. The Island of Sea Women is a fascinating portrait of working women that should be next on your reading list if you love to read good novels.

Lisa See is the author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird LaneSnow Flower and the Secret FanPeony in LoveShanghai GirlsChina Dolls, and Dreams of Joy, which debuted at #1. She is also the author of On Gold Mountain, which tells the story of her Chinese American family’s settlement in Los Angeles. See was the recipient of the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Association of Southern California and the History Maker’s Award from the Chinese American Museum. She was also named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women.

*****

Daphne Maritch is puzzled as to what she should do with the school yearbook her mother had left her. Daphne’s mother was a popular New Hampshire high school teacher. The yearbook is heavily annotated for the class of 1968. Her mother had clung to this yearbook till the end of her life. Daphne Maritch thinks that her mother had an emotional attachment with the yearbook because the class of 1968 had dedicated the yearbook to their teacher and her mother — late June Winter Maritch. She remembers that her mother never missed any of their reunions after 1968 and scribbled notes and her observations on the yearbook after every reunion. Her observations were not always kind. When Daphne moves to a new apartment in New York, she throws it away in the recycle bin. It so happens that the yearbook attracted the attention of one of her neighbors — an aspiring documentary maker — who takes it away with her. The neighbor finds it pretty interesting and believes that her first documentary should be on this yearbook group. Daphne fears that this will reveal the life of her mother and the secrets of her students. This unleashes a series of absurd and funny events that bring Daphne in the center-stage. In order to stop her neighbor from using the yearbook for her documentary, Daphne enlists another neighbor — a sexy young TV actor. Daphne invites the aspiring documentary maker to attend this year’s reunion of the Class of 1968. She desperately tries to keep her father — formerly the principal of the same school but now a widowed dog-walker in Manhattan — away from all this drama. This highly entertaining novel will bring laughter to the reader from time to time. Elinor Lipman shows how one woman’s trash becomes another woman’s treasure, creating situations that will make you smile and laugh continuously. Elinor Lipman knows how to pleasurably weave an entertaining story.

Elinor Lipman is the author of ten novels, including Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus, The Inn at Lake Devine, Then She Found Me, and, most recently, The Family Man. Good Riddance is her eleventh novel.

*****

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