Girl in a Box, Sujata Massey, Harper Collins, $23.95.
Sujata Massey's books have been an emotional journey for her central character, Rei Shimura, a half American, half Japanese who starts the series teaching English in Japan. As the series develops, she becomes a dealer in Japanese antiques and later in the series, an undercover operative working not for the CIA but another super secret government agency. Her love life has been torrid - she's gone through two very serious boyfriends - and in Girl in a Box she's interested in another man after breaking her engagement to her former and longtime lover, Hugh Glendinning. Massey's narrative skills have improved and tightened tremendously since her first novel, The Salaryman's Wife, and happily, her gorgeous, sultry prose now has a tighter narrative to do it justice.
Rei is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating character - at 30, she's on the young side for a mystery heroine - but she's smart, well educated and thinks things through in unusual ways which often help her get to the bottom of a situation. In each novel, though not all are set in Japan, different aspects of Japanese culture are touched on - and really, so seamlessly embedded in the story as a whole that you hardly realize you've learned something new until you've finished the book. In Girl in a Box we learn about an old Japanese custom - a special day set aside to honor old sewing needles that have been used up or broken in the past year - and lots about new Japanese culture, i.e., backstage at an ultra swanky Japanese department store. In classic detective fashion (and this is the only traditional thing about these novels) Rei is an insider/outsider - she's only half Japanese so can never be wholly assimilated into the culture she loves, but at the same time, this makes her a great observer.
The "girl in a box" of the title refers to a Japanese girl so sheltered she only takes a job in order to find a proper husband. Part of Rei's assignment is a makeover, where the 30 year old Rei gets a haircut and makeup job that makes her look 23, and then she must attempt to get the job at the department store, acting the part of a demure Japanese who even speaks in a high, polite, ultra feminine voice to convey a certain attitude. And now, to be very truthful, I will reveal the true joy to be found in Massey's books - the way she writes about clothes! If you like fashion at ALL - i.e., if you have ever bought a pretty dress or even thought about it - you will gobble these books up like candies. Even her description of the super fancy Japanese underwear she's just forced to buy on her new spy-expense account is delectable. Rei's makeover, of course, doesn't go to waste. After a few missteps she's able to get a job at the department store and land in a department where the salesgirls help foreign customers - they are recruited because, like Rei, they speak a foreign language (who, being American, of course speaks English fluently). The spy portion of the book is a little complicated for spice, not too scary, with just the right amount of smarts and bravery on Rei's part to save the day. This novel didn't have so much of some of my other favorite characters in the series - Rei's Aunt Norie and her Japanese family - but there is a great scene with Aunt Norie and a kimono. If you have enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha, The Devil Wears Prada or even Meg Cabot's sly and funny books for teens (The Princess Diaries books), Sujata Massey is for you. I, in fact, was compelled to read several others in the series before this one to, ahem, catch myself up on Rei's love life. I especially enjoyed The Samurai's Daughter, where Rei goes home for Christmas to San Francisco with her boyfriend Hugh, and The Typhoon Lover, where Rei goes undercover to hook up with an old boyfriend who is now the head of a famous ikebana school in Japan. Reading these books will completely take you out of your regular life and immerse you in Rei's, and that's truly a gift on the part of any author. (Robin)
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