Saturday, March 20, 2010

"If You Follow Me"

After graduating from Barnard College, Malena Watrous eventually taught English in Japan. She was placed by the Jet Program in Shika-Machi, the nuclear power plant town in which she set her debut novel, the newly released If You Follow Me.

Watrous applied the Page 69 Test to If You Follow Me and reported the following:
It seems appropriate that page 69 begins with a description of Marina, the narrator, and her girlfriend Carolyn, “lying in her father’s bed, our fresh tattoos protected under thick pads of gauze.” For a novel that focuses upon a lesbian relationship, I’ve been told there’s disappointingly little sex—just foreplay, pillow talk, a deep kiss or two, and some masturbation. In keeping with the rest of the book, page 69 doesn’t go into any kind of graphic detail about what they do in bed. Sorry.

Most of the novel is set in the small, nuclear power plant town of Shika, Japan, but page 69 is part of a rare flashback to the US, so the setting is atypical.

Marina and her girlfriend, Carolyn, meet in a college bereavement group. Not long after they start sleeping together, a girl in their dorm overdoses. Marina’s father killed himself that fall, and she can’t stand to be in such close proximity to death again, so Carolyn spontaneously brings her home to New Jersey. It’s on this trip that she learns that Carolyn is planning to go teach in Japan—launching the novel’s present story.

On Page 69, Marina thinks about her fairly limited preconceptions of Japan:

“I thought of a picture I’d seen of a Tokyo subway platform so crowded that a man was using a long stick to prod commuters onto the train. People talked about going abroad to find yourself. Japan seemed like a place where you could get lost.”

I liked the idea of subverting the typical notion of a person, especially a young person, going abroad to “find herself.” My main character feels exposed and paralyzed in the wake of her father’s suicide, and she wants to slip through the cracks, but by going to Japan she essentially does the opposite, ending up under a microscope where everything she does is scrutinized.

In the last paragraph on Page 69, Marina has a nightmare that regularly plagues her:

“In it, I was up there with my father on the ledge of the bridge, gazing down at the city lights reflected in the dark gloss of the bay. Right before he jumped, he turned to me with his eyebrows raised, a wordless invitation to keep him company.”

The page cuts off there, so you don’t find out that in her dream she does follow him down off the bridge and into the water, but he never turns around or sees her following him, so she feels like the gesture was wasted. This is a novel about a young woman racked with guilt over not having been able to foresee or prevent her father from killing himself, who is trying to outrun her past by starting this new relationship and moving to the most foreign place she can think of. I feel like Page 69 is actually spookily representative of the novel as a whole, that it contains almost all of the thematic strands that eventually weave together.
Browse inside If You Follow Me, and learn more about the book and author at the official Malena Watrous website and blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue