The Sweetest Fruits

Written by Monique Truong
Review by Sarah Johnson

Three distinctive, remarkable women narrate Truong’s third novel. They never meet, but their lives are interconnected, and subtly influenced by one another’s, through one person they all love: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-born, Irish-raised writer and translator who became a talented journalist in mid-19th century America, and whose stories about his final home of Japan introduced Western audiences to his beloved adopted country. He was a man created of continuous reinvention, and the journey he followed was so wide-ranging and unusual for its time that it’s hard to believe one 54-year life encapsulated it all. That said, it’s the women who shine here, and in a notable shift in perspective, Hearn comes alive only through their words. His absence from the page is frequently more palpable than his presence.

The first voice, expressed with lyricism and a mother’s yearning for her long-lost child, is that of Rosa Cassimati, a sheltered nobleman’s daughter from the Greek island of Cythera who was forced to leave her second son, Patricio, behind with his Anglo-Irish father’s family. Beginning in 1906, Alethea Foley, a formerly enslaved woman employed as a cook in a Cincinnati boardinghouse, remembers the boarder, Pat Hearn, who she admires and eventually marries—an event which has repercussions due to miscegenation laws. The longest tale belongs to Hearn’s second wife, Koizumi Setsu, a samurai’s daughter who bears him four children and sees his transformation from a foreign English teacher into a naturalized Japanese citizen.

Precisely researched, The Sweetest Fruits reads like a collection of oral histories; it provides a series of vivid impressions illuminating each heroine’s personal story and her purpose in telling it. While it may disappoint readers seeking an addictive plot, it resounds with character and feeling and has much to offer observers of historical women’s hidden lives.