Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Girl in the Photo by Wally Wood

Surgeon Robert Emmerling’s death at age 86 in The Girl in the Photo’s opening chapter serves as a catalyst for a series of discoveries by his two children. While clearing out their father’s home, David and Abbie find a memoir he had written about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War, years before he met their mother. It describes his involvement with Masami, a woman he met there. David and Abbie also turn up Masami’s photograph and a letter she had written to Dr. Emmerling after he returned to the U.S. This previously unknown episode in their father’s life raises questions for the siblings: Why did the romance end, and what happened to Masami afterward?

The novel draws the reader into this family’s story through plot elements that span past and present-day action. In the present, Abbie and David deal with their grief, pursue the truth about Masami and try to resolve dilemmas in their personal lives. But the past mingles freely in the form of frequent flashbacks to the siblings’ childhood and the memoir, whose chapters are interspersed with the main text of the novel.

During the events described in his memoir, Dr. Emmerling exhibits some of the same qualities he did while raising David and Abbie. Central to his character is the tendency to pass judgment on others. His memoir recounts Dr. Emmerling’s efforts to discourage a fellow military doctor from marrying his Japanese girlfriend. He enumerated various reasons for his objections to their marriage, such as cultural differences and the prejudice that a Japanese wife and children would be subjected to in the U.S. during the 1950s. He concluded, “Face it – marrying a Japanese woman is taking someone from a third-world country and expecting her to make it in a first-world country.”

David and Abbie’s recollections also depict a judgmental, controlling man who made his children feel inadequate. David recalls the confrontation in which he told his father that he didn’t have what it took to continue with his pre-med studies.
Dad wouldn’t let that pass. “Of course you’re good enough. You’re smart enough. You’re not trying hard enough. You’ve got to try harder.”

David looked to his mother at the other end of the dining room table for understanding and support. “I am trying! I’ve been trying all year. I just can’t do it.”

“You’re not stupid, David,” said Dad. “I refuse to believe you can’t pass second semester chemistry.”

Abbie too has memories of unsavory aspects of her father’s personality. She had been selected to perform in a school musical, but his reaction shocked Abbie, who remembers,
He said, “I understand you want to sing a duet in public with that colored student.” I didn’t know what to say. He never paid any attention to what I was doing in school. “You may not,” he announced. “I absolutely forbid it.” … I was crushed. I couldn’t believe my own father was so prejudiced. I probably said something like, ‘”Why?” He wouldn’t look at me. “I’m your father,” he said. “As long as you live in my house, you’ll do what you’re told. The subject is closed.”

On the other hand, the memoir illuminates aspects of their distant, unemotional father’s character that David and Abbie never knew existed. It reveals him to be capable of tenderness, rage and confusion – things they did not witness while growing up. Describing how he feels when he’s with Masami, Dr. Emmerling writes in his memoir,
At these moments, I feel as if I’ve briefly come truly alive. This is the only reality I crave. Not the hospital. Not the operating room. Certainly not the war and the endless train of wounded GIs. Not whatever is to come after this time – the States, a hospital affiliation, a career, a wife, children, a home, two cars, country club membership. None of that could ever be as real as this.

Further muddying the waters are flashbacks in which Dr. Emmerling unexpectedly behaved with great kindness toward those in trouble. As a result, he initially appears to the reader as a man rife with inexplicable inconsistencies. But through the shifts between present and past, the author gradually assembles the various pieces of the puzzle that is Dr. Emmerling’s life. Behavior that seemed incomprehensible earlier in the book makes sense in the context of subsequent revelations. Along with David and Abbie, the reader comes to an understanding of a complex man whose character was indelibly marked by the profound experience he had in Japan.

This novel’s greatest strength is its characterizations. Dr.Emmerling emerges as a flawed, often unlikable but fully realized human being. The reader can easily imagine how he might react in any situation. The characters of Abbie and David are also painstakingly constructed. The reader learns about their relationships, their careers, their triumphs and their disappointments. Their father’s influence reverberates in their lives, and the reader can trace his impact on their choices.

The memoir’s descriptions of Korean-War-era Japan and its denizens are richly detailed and effectively transport the reader to another time and place. In some sections of the book, however, the level of detail about Japanese culture is somewhat excessive, and readers may find their interest flagging through these passages.

Overall, The Girl in the Photo is an absorbing tale whose characters remain vivid in the reader’s memory long after the closing chapter.

This book is available from Amazon.

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