Gaby Stanton, the expatriot protagonist in Sara Backer's debut novel, American Fuji, sells parties for a living. To be more specific, she sells fantasy funerals: catering and cremation with special effects. When she visits potential clients in Shizuoka, Japan, to make her pitch, her boss, Mr. Eguchi, tells her to notice their toilets and cars. Toilets, he maintains, tell the truth about people. So does fiction, and in this highly enjoyable first novel, Sara Backer, herself a veteran of living and working in Japan, imbues her story with enough verisimilitude and heartfelt emotion that we, too, feel immersed in a foreign culture with that sense of helplessness in finding one's way. Key to the central story in the novel are affairs of the heart, which abound in more ways than one. Gaby, who has recently been fired from her job as a university English teacher, takes the job pitching funerals in desperation a desperation guided by her need for health insurance as a chronic condition takes a turn for the worst. Alex Thorn, an American psychologist and author of a self-help book called Why Love Fails, enters her life as he investigates the reasons behind his son's death in Japan a year earlier. As his link to the firm that shipped his son's body home, Gaby helps him find answers to his questions, but more questions arise linked to love of family, love of a man for a woman and love of place.
While most first novels are content to wrestle with one genre, Backer adroitly integrates three. American Fujiis by turns a mystery, a romantic comedy and a work of great literary depth. In the novel, several of Backer's characters make a trek up Mount Fuji in homage to an anniversary of a special occasion. Backer's debut novel sets a standard as high as Mount Fuji for what one hopes will be many more novels to come.
Bonnie Arant Ertelt is a writer and editor living in Nashville.