The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

At one point in Monique Truong’s novel, The Sweetest Fruits, one of the narrators tells her interviewer that it’s not enough to just get the story of one person: you have to also get the stories of the people around them. And that’s exactly what we get in this novel based on the life of author Lafcadio Hearn and three of the women in his life. (Technically four, if you count the excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland‘s biography of her friend.) While we learn a lot about Hearn, I was more fascinated by the lives of the women who loved him than I was about a man who often struck me as selfish and fussy. The women tell us about love, sacrifice, abandonment, difficult choices, compatibility, and so much more. This book is an amazing piece of writing that, while it hews very close to actual history, amplifies it in ways that only faction can do.

The first narrator we meet is Rosa Cassimati (Rosa Antoniou Kassimatis), Hearn’s Venetian Greek mother. She is returning to her home island of Kythira after spending unhappy years in Dublin, with her Anglo-Irish husband’s aunt. She tells her story to her maid, to dictate her words into a long letter to her son to explain why she left him in Ireland. Rosa takes us all the way back to her adolescences, when she was a virtual prisoner to a father who was trying to “protect” her from the outside world. Just before she is sent off to a convent, she meets Charles Hearn and the pair fall in love. Things get out of hand and the two are forced into more entanglement than they perhaps wanted. Rosa’s letter to Lafcadio is brutally honest and deeply colored by her regret.

For the rest of The Sweetest Fruits, I wondered if his parents relationship was foreshadowing for the rest of the writer’s life. The second part of the book, narrated by Hearn’s first wife, Alethea Foley, had me thinking that Lafcadio might be the second coming of Charles Hearn. Alethea was enslaved in Kentucky before the Freedom, as she calls it. Afterwards, Alethea moved to Cincinnati and worked as a boarding house cook. Her relationship with Hearn started slowly; I wasn’t always sure if they were deliberately courting or not. Alethea’s retelling of their story—told to a reporter in an effort to help her gain her rights as a lawful wife—also had me wondering if Alethea knew that their relationship was doomed. In retrospect, Alethea can definitely see the warning signs: Lafcadio’s sudden realization of what having a black wife would mean for his social standing, his anger over things like what’s for dinner and how it’s prepared, the stress of living close to the bone, financially speaking. When Lafcadio departs for New Orleans, it feels more inevitable than anything else.

An 1889 portrait of Lafcadio Hearn, by Frederick Gutekunst (Image via Wikicommons)

The last part of the novel, narrated by Hearn’s second wife, Koizumi Setsu, has a completely different emotional tone. Setsu is in mourning, but she doesn’t seem to carry the deep regret or anger of our first two narrators. Where Rosa was fleeing a place where she didn’t fit in and Alethea speaks from a place where Lafcadio couldn’t fit in, Setsu reveals how Lafcadio found a home in Japan. There is conflict between the two, but Lafcadio seems to find whatever he was looking for all his life in this new country, far from where he started in the Mediterranean Ocean. Setsu describes their life together as creating their own country and language. They are not the foreigners or the outcasts anymore; everyone outside their circle is a foreigner. I think this is what Hearn was looking for for so long. In Ireland, he was a half-Greek dependent suddenly dropped on a family that didn’t want him. In the Untied States, he was an Irishman who married a black woman, making him double outcast. In Japan, however, he was welcomed—so much so that he became a Japanese subject.

After reading The Sweetest Fruits, I don’t have any desire to learn more about Hearn. His lifelong need to make the world around him just so bothered me, especially as so much of it came through unacknowledged emotional labor from the women who tell this story. I had much more sympathy for the narrators. So much so, that I loved getting their stories as they made room for Lafcadio in their homes and lives. This book is so rich in the ideas and themes that come up that I think a literary-minded and/or feminist book club would also devour it. Truong’s writing is also beautiful as it gives each narrator her own distinct voice, motivations, and experiences. The Sweetest Fruits is an astonishingly great read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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