Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Culture clash really isn't so different

Book: Polite Society
Author: Melanie Sumner
Published: 1995 (Houghton Mifflin)
Pages: 204

White girl joins Peace Corps, Peace Corps sends white girl to Africa, white girl falls in love with her African French tutor, white girl eventually stops caring what her boyfriend/French tutor thinks of her or how many other girls he’s seeing while still claiming romantic authority over her.

It’s a love – no, a relationship story skewed just this little bit by cultural differences, but not different enough to escape being super familiar and slightly tedious. There is no big epiphany about how lust/love is colorblind or translates across all nationalities and colors, no sweeping romance of the uptight lady being able to unleash her true romantic side in the equal wilds of her new exotic setting.

And I do actually appreciate that. The best part of the book was the protagonist’s utter lack of idealism about anything she’s doing. She keeps a realistic perspective (and a legful of mosquito bites) on her new setting, which means we get a rounded view of the interesting and the bad sides of the culture she’s trying to fit into because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. She sees through all the false charm of the place to start and still has to learn how to not get robbed or malaria.  

She doesn’t pretend that her boyfriend treating her like crap is a charming cultural clash that deep down really reveals his tender feelings for her if only he’d learn Western ways of expressing them – and at the same time, she doesn’t disguise the fact that she doesn’t like him even though she wants him. Those two emotions can be completely exclusive of each other, and she seems to take advantage of the fact that this new culture treats this as a blatant fact of life so she can fit in quicker.

In the end, she is settled, just that, but what I want to know is what the hell happened to the rich lady we meet for like two alternate-viewpoint chapters, getting a new dress made to catch her ambassador husband’s wandering eye and failing? There is literally no more story about her, and I would’ve loved the contrast between slightly cynical peace worker scrambles her way into the local economy with rich established oblivious couple gets pulled into reality really hard.

Oh well. I think I’ll still keep this on my bookshelf. The details about modern African society and how outsiders try to fit in to it are interesting enough before the lovers get too familiar with it and each other. 

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