Cynthia Kadohata | Critical Review by Wendy Smith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Cynthia Kadohata.
This section contains 783 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Wendy Smith

SOURCE: "Future Imperfect: Los Angeles 2052," in Washington-Post, Aug 16, 1992, Sec. BW, p. 5.

In the following review, Smith praises the skillfully evoked atmosphere and the "finely wrought prose" of In the Heart of the Valley of Love.

Readers of Cynthia Kadohata's first novel, The Floating World, will recognize in her second the deadpan, slightly ironic voice of a female protagonist who describes her adventures in a strange, unpredictable environment with lyrical images that create the magical atmosphere—and the cool emotional distance—of a fairy tale. In the Heart of the Valley of Love's Francie is 19, while Olivia was 12 at the beginning of The Floating World, but the older selves who look back in the two books to examine their youth from some unspecified future date sound very much the same.

The pasts they consider, however, are radically different. Olivia and her family roamed across Arkansas and the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s driven by prejudice and the imperatives of her parents' troubled marriage from one self-contained Japanese-American community to the next. Francie scrambles to eke out an existence in and around Los Angeles in the year 2052, when the only meaningful social distinction is the gulf between the inhabitants of the "richtowns" that exist in every American city, who attend universities and go into business as though nothing had changed in 100 years, and everyone else: the "non-whites and poor whites [who] made up sixty-four percent of the population but made only twenty percent of the legal purchases," a population in which half the adults can't read and all have been excluded from the nation's economy.

In this nastily plausible near-future, riots and brownouts are everyday occurrences, the privatized mail delivery hardly functions, gas and water credits are more valuable than cash, the remains of unfinished highways arch over the plains "like half of concrete rainbows," a pollution-induced skin disease raises "black pearls" under almost everyone's skin and most people avoid the 12 1/2 percent sales tax by buying on the black market. The legal order bears so little relation to reality that "just about everybody broke laws all the time … There was probably nobody in the entire country, except a few …, who couldn't be arrested for something. Occasionally, the police arrested a randomly chosen person, and if you went searching for him or her, they might arrest you too."

As in The Floating World, atmosphere is Kadohata's strong point. She skillfully evokes a dangerous, capricious world in which "with people dying or getting arrested or all the time leaving each other, you hated to love people, you really did." Francie's narration has the authentic, burned-out sound of a shell-shocked survivor, still open to experience—her descriptions of the creepy 21st-century landscape are the best things in the novel—but wary of emotional involvement. Her attitude towards sex is chillingly matter-of-fact (AIDS has apparently been eliminated, or at least is never mentioned), and although she frequently claims to love Mark, the student she meets when she enrolls at a local two-year college, the relationship she shows us seems compounded more of physical proximity than any real closeness. Seldom has a novel's title been more at odds with its essence.

Kadohata's point may be that the nature of intimacy has changed in a time when getting through the day is a top priority, but this doesn't make for a very compelling story. The reader quickly comes to share Francie's detached attitude towards the rest of the characters, none of whom is as intriguing or as strongly sketched as the iron willed grandmother, sexually restless mother and gentle father in The Floating World. The author's lack of interest in plotting, already apparent in her first book, becomes more problematic here: Olivia's narrative, although diffuse, gained some momentum and direction from the simple fact that it showed her growing up and moving away from her family; Francie acquires an apartment and a boyfriend, but there's no sense of her learning or changing over the course of the novel.

Despite its coldness and lack of storytelling drive. In The Heart of the Valley of Love offers much to admire. Kadohata's scathing social commentary has as much to say about America today as in the year 2052; if our politicians read novels and had any sense of shame, it would make them squirm with its vision of a nation that has abandoned all pretense of including everyone in the social contract. Her finely wrought prose creates haunting pictures that linger long after her flatly conceived characters have faded from memory. When this talented writer decides to tell a story and people it with three-dimensional figures, her gift for images and ideas will have a truly powerful fictional outlet.

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This section contains 783 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Wendy Smith
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