Only a few weeks to go before my novel Her Own Vietnam is published, and still many fabulous women novelists to discuss. Moving in alphabetical order, today it’s Susan Choi.
We think we know this story – but we don’t
Susan Choi explores events, situations or characters that we think we know and upends them, making them both less familiar and more illuminating of life in America. Her characters are sometimes unlikeable but always compelling, and Choi’s psychological insights penetrate even the most complicated characters.
I became a Susan Choi fan after reading American Woman, published in 2003. The novel uses some elements of the well-known Patty Hearst saga – a young heiress is kidnapped by left-wing radicals and comes to join them – and melds them into a story we’ve never read before.
Choi’s focus is not on the Patty Hearst figure, but on the woman no one notices, a revolutionary of Japanese-American descent who agrees to hide the heiress and ultimately grows to love her, all the while knowing that it is she herself – not white, not rich, not recognized as fully American – who is the most at risk. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The power of otherness
A Person of Interest (2008) is based loosely on an amalgam of two real-life stories: the Unabomber saga, and the scientist whose life was destroyed unfairly when he was announced as a person of interest in the anthrax case. In the novel, a mathematician named Lee is nearing retirement at a Midwestern university. He is envious of his young, popular neighbor in the faculty offices – until the man opens a package that contains a bomb. Lee ultimately becomes a person of interest in the case. The novel is part mystery, part procedural, but mostly a detailed, thoughtful exploration of life as a perpetual outsider.
In My Education (2013), a graduate student is powerfully drawn to her glamorous professor. It’s a timeworn literary trope, but with a writer of Choi’s skill and originality, nothing is quite what you expect. To start with, the student ends up falling in love not with her professor, but with his wife.
The dynamics of race, gender, ethnicity, class and culture – the very definition of “otherness” – play central roles in her work. With the sure hand of an expert storyteller, Susan Choi takes on the unpopular, the unsayable, and the deeply intriguing.