Publisher: FSG. November 1, 2016.
Genre: Literary Fiction
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Kelly Luce's Pull Me Under tells the story of Rio Silvestri, who, when she was twelve years old, fatally stabbed a school bully. Rio, born Chizuru Akitani, is the Japanese American daughter of the revered violinist Hiro Akitani--a Living National Treasure in Japan and a man Rio hasn't spoken to since she left her home country for the United States (and a new identity) after her violent crime. Her father's death, along with a mysterious package that arrives on her doorstep in Boulder, Colorado, spurs her to return to Japan for the first time in twenty years. There she is forced to confront her past in ways she never imagined, pushing herself, her relationships with her husband and daughter, and her own sense of who she is to the brink. -Goodreads
If you've been to Japan, you will enjoy reading this book. If you want to feel like you've been to Japan, you will also enjoy reading this book. At the beginning, you're immediately drawn in. Half Japanese, half American girl Chizuru kills her school bully - SO JAPANESE. We see her at that time and we see her later as a pretty well-rounded, stable adult. But when she learns that her father who abandoned her has died, she decides to go to Japan by herself. And that's when all sorts of pent up stuff bubbles up to the surface. Rio/Chizuru has a lot of stuff to figure out about herself that she has been ignoring. Even though this book is about someone who murdered their school bully, the vast majority of it felt like a road trip book (on foot). Luce is excellent at capturing how it feels to be in Japan. It was a complete delight for me, because I went there so recently. And there are some pretty interesting characters that are introduced once Rio arrives.
My mom hated the misogyny she witnessed in Japan. She'd ranted about Miura-san ogling her in his office to Hiro, who only shrugged. It didn't seem like a big deal to me at the time--I'd have loved to be thought pretty like my mom was. I noticed the stereotypes when I got older, for a different reason: people were always surprised when they learned that Tomoya's killer was female. As if a girl couldn't feel rage, couldn't be brutal.
Because I was having so much fun vicariously being in Japan again, I had to force myself to take a step back and see how the book was actually doing plot-wise. And, to be honest, much of it felt just like things were just happening for things to happen. Often there were strained interactions between characters that seemed unrealistic. Like a character bails on a planned dinner with Rio to go on a pilgrimage to different temples and Rio runs into her before she gets a chance to bail. What does she do? Insists she go with her. I get that the intent was to show how awkward and unaware Rio was being, but there are a lot of strangely motivated choices like this. Things sometimes felt like they were coming out of nowhere, because we didn't get as close to the characters as we could have.
I think Pull Me Under edged into some really important and interesting questions about personal identity and whether or not people can change - and what that change could look like. It dealt with some dark themes that I would've liked a deeper look at. I wanted to know more about Rio's mother's suicide. I wanted to know more about what was going through Rio's head during a death that happens halfway through the book. There were a ton of moments that looked like opportunities for big things to be revealed, but sometimes there was no follow through. Like we walked up to the gates of this potential new information, then we walked away randomly. It was a little jarring a couple of times. Though the pacing and plot structure were both a little uneven, Kelly Luce is quite a good writer and at no point did I want to stop reading. Not bad for a debut novel.