Offering a unique perspective and unusual insight into modern Japan and its wartime past, Audrey Hepburn's Neck is also a shrewd study of cross-cultural obsessions, and of erotic, romantic and familial love. The American author Alan Brown crosses both racial and cultural lines to tell his story through the eyes of a young, handsome Japanese cartoonist, Toshiyuki ("Toshi") Okamoto, who traces his strong attraction to Western women bock to his ninth birthday, when his mother took him to see Audrey Hepburn in the movie "Roman Holiday." Leaving behind a sad, silent childhood -- which was spent living in two rooms above the family noodle shop on an isolated peninsula in the far north of Japan -- Toshi moves to Tokyo to pursue his career. There he falls under the spell of three Americans: his best friend and confidante, the generous and extroverted Paul, a gay advertising copywriter who has plenty of his romantic mishaps with Japanese men; Jane, his glamorous but emotionally unstable teacher at the Very Romantic English Academy, with whom Toshi has a hazardous sexual affair; and, finally, the lovely and talented composer, Lucy, with whom Toshi falls in love. The novel deftly moves back and forth between present and past, as Toshi explores his unhappy childhood, the reasons behind his mother's unexplained abandonment when he was eight years old, and her move to a seaside inn across the peninsula. As the novel draws to a close, tragic events, both public and personal, bring past and present together, revealing the painful truth of Toshi's parents' lives during World War II, and a secret in Toshi's own past that, in the end, gives him the strength and knowledge to confront the future.
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion in your reading of Alan Brown's Audrey Hepburn's Neck. We hope the following information will enrich your discussion and enjoyment of this book. Reading Group Discussion Points
Brown, an American, chose to tell his story through the eyes of a Japanese protagonist. Why do you think he made that decision? Would he have been able to tell the same story as successfully from an American character's point of view?
Some people feel that writers should stick to writing about what they know from their own experience. Do you think it's valid for an author to cross lines of race and culture to tell a story? To inhabit a character from a different country? Why or why not? What's to be gained by the author? The reader?
Brown's novel revolves around the eroticism of the "other" -- foreigners, foreign languages, foreign countries. What do you think is the attraction of the "other," and why is it so powerful of some people? What do you think they are looking for?
Toshi, Paul and Jane are all searching for people -- Audrey Hepburn, Yukio Mishima, Toshira Mifune -- who only existed in books or on the movie screen. Do you agree that romantic and sexual attraction can be so irrational and powerful?
There are more than a few different kinds of love in Audrey Hepburn's Neck. Can you identify them and the author's feelings about them? Which relationship in the novel do you feel is the most successful? Why?
Brown says that the Japan he writes of in his novel is not the real Japan, but a "hyper-real" Japan, one that "doesn't exist, but could exist." The contest for the Crown Prince's bride and his romance with Brooke Shields, the foxes that sleep in trees, the rice riots -- are all made up, yet, according to the author, only slight extensions or exaggerations of the truth. Do you think this kind of fictionalizing of real people, places, and events is acceptable in a novel? Under what circumstances might it not be?
Do you think Brown's view of cross-cultural relationships is optimistic or pessimistic? Why? Do you feel that barriers of culture, race, and religion can be overcome in a relationship?
Toshi feels that the skill most essential for talking with Americans is "how to interrupt." Jane and Hugh and Lucy talk "as if they are playing sports and someone is keeping score." Do you think this is true?
Toshi says in response to a question about Ozu films, that "everything foreigners like about Japan was already over before Toshi was born." What do you think he means by that? What is it that attracts Americans to Japan? What are your impressions of Japan and how were they formed? Do you think they're realistic?
Brown has stated that living abroad in Japan has made him "patriotic" for the first fume. "I discovered who I was as an American." Is the author's patriotism evident in Audrey Hepburn's Neck? If so, how does it manifest itself?
Alan Brown went to Japan in 1987 as a Fulbright journalist. He lived in Tokyo for seven years, writing for magazines and newspapers and reporting on culture for BBC Radio. His short fiction has appeared in New Directions anthologies and other publications. He lives in New York City.
Janice Greene San Francisco Chronicle A fascinating first novel....Audrey Hepburn's Neck is like origami, put together with grace and ingenuity.
Mary Jo Salter Los Angeles Times Book Review On page after page, Brown's touch, both as observer and stylist, is sure and accurate....It's a rare writer who combines such delicacy with a zany sense of humor....[an] acute and acutely funny novel.
David Walton Minneapolis Star-Tribune Audrey Hepburn's Neck is . . . a sweetly sentimental, smartly comical tale.... Very well-written and affecting... Truly pleasurable.... A sure-response winner.