My Year of Meats:
A Novel

by Ruth L. Ozeki,
364 pages,
ISBN: 0670879045

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First Novels - Bloodlines
by Eva Tihanyi

Another excellent debut is the oddly titled My Years of Meats (Penguin Canada, 362 pages, $33.99 cloth), by Ruth L. Ozeki. It is the interlocking story of two women, Jane Takagi-Little, a "documentarian" based in New York, and Akiko Ueno, a Tokyo housewife. How the two eventually meet forms the main trajectory of the story.

Jane, who describes herself as "American Gothic gone wrong" (she has a Japanese mother and an American father and is six feet tall), has been hired to produce a Japanese TV show sponsored by BEEF-EX, a powerful American meat industry lobby group. Jane's mission (which she accepts despite her misgivings) is to convince Japanese housewives to buy American meats, especially beef. The vehicle for this sell job is My American Wife, a half-hour "documentary", which, each week, features a different meat recipe prepared by a wholesome American wife for her wholesome American family.

Jane's immediate supervisor is Akiko's husband, who is trying as hard as he can to Americanize himself, going so far as to change his name to "John". John insists that Akiko prepare every meal featured on the show and fill out a weekly questionnaire rating each episode. Much to his chagrin, his wife's favourites-the ones where Jane rebels against the corporate party line-are the ones he hates most. These differences of opinion are merely the tip of an enormous marital iceberg: John wants Akiko to get pregnant, but she is bulimic and her periods cease. The longer the situation continues, the more abusive he becomes until eventually one of his beatings lands her in the hospital.

In the meantime, while travelling in search of appropriately wholesome families, Jane, who believes she's infertile because of drugs her mother took while pregnant, continues to rendezvous at various points throughout the Midwest with Sloan Rankin, her saxophone-playing lover. Surprises await her, and she finds far more than odd recipes for meat.

To its credit, the book doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve, at least not to the point where the condemnation of hormone-injected beef and the "anything-for-the-almighty-buck" mentality overshadow the characters themselves. Jane and Akiko do not become mere mouthpieces for political posturing. Akiko's story, told in the third person, and Jane's first-person narrative are fast-paced and smoothly written. In fact, Jane is a delightful narrator, smart, sexy, serious, but also at times wickedly funny. Largely because of her, My Year of Meats is a book to which you wish there were a sequel.


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