~by Dana Sachs
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, published in 2013 by HarperCollins, is Dana Sachs' second novel. When I saw The Secret of the Nightingale Palace offered through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program it caught my attention. I was unfamiliar with Sachs and her work--she has written both fiction and nonfiction, and translates Vietnamese fiction into English as well--but the title and cover implied that Japanese culture influenced the story. I'll admit it was those elements that most interested me in The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. Although I requested a copy of the novel, I was still a little surprised when I was matched up with the book--I don't read much contemporary American fiction these days. Still, I was looking forward to giving The Secret of the Nightingale Palace a try.
Since her husband For died of leukemia two years ago, Anna has struggled to move on with her life, stuck in a sort of limbo. Although she loved Ford dearly, his illness was an extremely difficult one and strained their relationship. Anna's marriage to For also negatively impacted her relationship with her family. In particular, her grandmother Goldie never approved of him and the two women haven't been on good terms for years. But now Goldie has called Anna up, somehow convincing her granddaughter to accompany her on a cross-country trip from New York to San Francisco, supposedly to return a collection of Japanese art prints to a close friend she hasn't seen since the 1940s. Sixty years after she left the city, Goldie returns to San Francisco but she has hidden the personal significance of the journey from Anna.
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace alternates between Anna and Goldie's travels across the United States in the 2000s and Goldie's life in San Francisco in the 1940s as a young woman. I much preferred the parts of the novel that focused on the past and Goldie's relationship with the Nakamuras, an aristocratic Japanese family she befriends after moving to the city, under the shadow of World War II. Unfortunately, I didn't really like Goldie herself as a person. She is very calculating and manipulative. Despite declaring that race and money shouldn't and doesn't matter, Goldie is extremely judgemental and classist. Seeing as The Secret of the Nightingale Palace seems to be more her story than it is Anna's, I had a difficult time actually enjoy the novel. To be honest, I wasn't that fond of Anna, either. Sachs does capture the women's generational differences very well, but the two of them can be very cruel to each other.
Another difficulty I had with The Secret of the Nightingale Palace was the novel's pacing. Particularly at the beginning of the book there seemed to be superfluous information and extraneous scenes. Instead of creating any sort of atmosphere, they just seem to be getting in the way of the actual story. I found the first part of The Secret of the Nightingale Palace to be very tedious. Fortunately, the pacing improves immensely as the novel progresses. But even though I was largely frustrated with The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, there were a few elements I really liked. For one, I greatly appreciated the broad diversity (ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) of the cast of characters. I also enjoyed the connection and inspiration that Anna, as a comic artist, was able to draw from the Japanese prints. Sadly though, my favorite part of The Secret of the Nightingale Palace wasn't the novel itself, but Sachs' acknowledgments in which she discusses her motivations, influences, and research methods for writing the tale.