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It's a well known phenomenon that so many authors' first novels are semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tales.  After all, you write what you know and we wouldn't expect young writers to know much.  Still, despite their lack of experience as writers and their rather limited experience of life, these debut efforts are often the best books that the authors will ever produce, sometimes--as in the case of Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird--the only book they'll ever write.  Then again, there are some cases where the author just needs to get the story out of his system before he can get on with the rest of his career.  But this is the only case I can think of offhand where an author returned to autobiographical material for a second novel and managed to improve quite so drastically on the first.

Cleopatra Moon tells the story of two Korean-American sisters growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the 1970s and of their current lives and the strained relationship between them.  Marcy, who now runs a second hand store on an Indian reservation in Nevada, was a bookish,, dutiful daughter.  Her sister, Cleopatra, who owns a business making gourmet food sauces, was strikingly beautiful, self-possessed, and daring when they were young.  Cleopatra was the kind of girl we all went to high school with, who could use her good looks to get just about anything she wanted, and was surrounded by fawning acolytes who did her bidding.  We all hated such women, but Marcy lived in utter awe of her sister, of her looks, and of her ability to manipulate people.  This creates a real problem in the book as we neither like Cleopatra, who is the mystery at the book's core, nor can we respect Marcy who is so much in her thrall.

Added to this structural problem are the Oprahesque touches in the book.  There is the obligatory sexual assault, and Marcy's advocacy for the White Sky tribe and her belief in spiritual forces add a treacly New Age/politically correct edge.  Some of the stuff about teen girls dealing with anti-Asian racism is mildly interesting, particularly because there's so little other fiction dealing with the topic, but the focus of the novel is elsewhere, mainly on the not very compelling tensions between the sisters.  Ultimately, we just don't like the sisters enough to get particularly involved in their story.

Meanwhile, in To Swim Across the World, Frances Park and her real life sister, Ginger--the two own a boutique together in Washington--have written a marvelous novel based on the lives and love of their
Korean immigrant parents.  The novel is set against a backdrop of first the Japanese occupation and then the Communist takeover of the North and the ensuing War.  Sei-Young Shin is a young man from South Korea, his father a woodcarver and a drunkard, beaten down by life under the Japanese.  The great influence in Sei-Young's life is his Grandfather, a churchless minister who surreptitiously paints the message "Freedom in our land" on local rocks, and continually reminds him :

    Your name is Sei-Young, which means 'to swim across the world.'  Someday you will do just that.

Heisook Pang is the daughter of a prominent minister in the North.  Her brother is rebellious and questions how their parents can so docilely accept their oppressors, but her father is devoted to the Church.  Chapters alternate between the home lives of Heisook and Sei-Young, who eventually meet and fall in love, but only after both families have been beset with much sorrow and Heisook has undertaken a harrowing escape from the North.

The book is a revelation.  It evokes the awesome struggle of an entire (albeit divided) nation and its people to live in freedom.  From their days in grade school, when they are required to answer to Japanese names and are taught nothing of their own country's history, to their meeting in college, where Communist students are trying to close the Christian university, we see Heisook and Sei-Young deal with the tragedies of life under the two monstrous "-isms" (Fascism and Communism) of the 20th Century.  Any American who thinks that immigrants are just looking for a hand out should read about what this couple goes through and we should all thank Providence that such people chose, and still choose, to make their new lives here.

Where Cleopatra Moon is a chick book that will only appeal to the Oprah Book Clubbers, To Swim Across the World is a terrific novel, wherein the universal quest for freedom is realized in thrilling and moving fashion.  If the Park sisters decide to follow this one up and write a book about how Heisook and Sei-Young adjusted to life in their new country, I for one will be eager to read it.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Frances Park (2 books reviewed)
Asian Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : To Swim Across the World (FSB Associates)
    -EXCERPT : from  When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon by Frances Park (Random House)
    -REVIEW : of To Swim Across the World (Deborah Sussman Susser, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of To Swim Across the World (Elizabeth Hollander, East Bay Express)
    -REVIEW : of To Swim Across the World by Frances and Ginger Park (GAIL COOKE / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW : of When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon by Frances Park (Jennifer Dick, Sotland Online)
    -REVIEW : of When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon by Frances Park (Tracy Quek , Straits Times)
    -REVIEW : of When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon by Frances Park (Scott Morris, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW :  of When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon by Frances Park (Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times)
    -REVIEW : of When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon (Carol Memmott, USA TODAY)

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