by Alan Brennert
I recently took my first trip to Hawaii. In the weeks leading up to my vacation, (as always) I began looking for the perfect reading material for my trip. I knew I wanted to read something set on Oahu, where I was going. How convenient, then, that Alan Brennert published Honolulu right before my trip! To be perfectly honest, the description of the story about a Korean “picture bride” didn’t sound too interesting. If I hadn’t been heading to Honolulu, I would have passed it up. And I would have lost out on reading a lovely novel.
Honolulu is the story of Regret. That’s Regret with a capitol “r,” because that is what her birth name means. She is born in the Korean countryside in 1897, and her folks aren’t too thrilled to have a daughter, even though they have four sons. It’s a cultural thing. Regret’s childhood in Korea is interesting. She grows up in a fairly rigid Confucian household, and I was fascinated by this glimpse of a time, place, and rich culture I was completely unfamiliar with. I thought Brennert did an exceptionally good job of exploring the differences in the Korean world view.
Throughout her childhood, the one thing Regret wants more than anything else is an education—a very unrealistic goal. In Korea, she is doomed to a very restricted life spent primarily in the inner rooms of her father’s, and eventually her husband’s, home. For these reasons, Regret takes a leap of faith and signs up to be the picture bride of a handsome and wealthy Korean gentleman in Hawaii, where the streets are “paved with gold.” That last should give you an idea that all in Hawaii is not as advertised, but Regret (or Jin as she rechristens herself) has opened the door to a much larger life than she ever could have imagined.
In the telling of Jin’s life story, Brennert does an excellent job of bringing Oahu to life, and exploring the island’s culture and history in a fully engaging way. It was so exciting to read about locations in the book, having just visited them in real life! I literally could not have picked a better companion volume for my trip.
But aside from the cool location stuff, I was very caught up in Jin’s story. As I began reading, the book that repeatedly came to mind was Memoir of a Geisha. Similarities between the two books are somewhat superficial, but like Geisha, Honolulu was a completely captivating read.