Words of the Pitcher
I have to give credit to Genesis Publishing for their Red Slipper line featuring Asian and Asian-American characters, and for being willing to tackle various flavors of interracial romance in general. And kudos to Kei Swanson for her portrayal of an Asian man as sexy and desirable – that’s a first in for me in my romance reading.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much else I really enjoyed about Words of the Pitcher, and believe me, I really thought I would like this book. Besides the multicultural aspect of the storyline, it featured baseball, a heroine who is a graduate student, and a Japanese character and Japanese language as key components of the story. As a baseball fan, Japanese language student and someone who studied Japanese culture and history before finally fleeing grad school, I was excited.
Claire Ferris is the grad student, working on her dissertation in Japanese studies. Her advisor tells her she is working too hard, and that she should take a break for the summer. He has something specific in mind. Before long, Claire finds herself working as Cleveland Indians pitcher Kentaro Ikuta’s “words” – his translator and English tutor. Ikuta has recently been recruited from a Japanese team, and has to struggle with both his English and his sudden immersion in American culture. As they work together, an emotional attachment forms between them, but there are obstacles – a hostile Cleveland press, a psycho ex-sort-of-boyfriend of Claire’s, and an arranged betrothal for Kentaro back home.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this, I found myself feeling impatient and dissatisfied with both Claire and Kentaro as characters. Both seemed wishy washy and emotionless, and it was very difficult to figure out what was going on with either of them. Choppy writing and plotting distanced me from them, so much so that my major clue that they now liked each other was that they started having sex with each other.
And even that was not much fun, as the love scenes are full of purple jargon: Claire’s breast is a “round orb” and Kentaro’s “manhood” is described as a “hard cylinder.” And when that cylinder started probing Claire’s “forested lips,” Kei Swanson got my nomination for creator of the ickiest romance novel euphemism ever.
I could have gotten past this if the rest of the story had been at all believable. But obstacles appear and evaporate with dizzying speed and little sense. For example, Kentaro’s father arranges a marriage for Kentaro (and while this custom is not entirely passé in Japan today, it is extremely rare that arranged marriages are arranged utterly without input from the involved sons and daughters). He won’t hear any objections from Kentaro and objects to his son’s “Americanization” and abandonment of tradition. Yet at the end of the book, Kentaro plans to marry Claire in his hometown of Nagasaki without a word mentioned of his family’s reaction to the change in plans. Similarly, Claire goes from thinking of her buddy Jason as someone she can fall back on for a date, to being creeped out by him fifteen pages later, with no explanation. Later still, Jason puts moves on her that would have made a Kennedy cousin blush, yet Claire never noticed that he had possessiveness issues? This did not wash.
I found the book disappointing because it has elements of an unusual, fresh story, but they were never used to their best advantage. Baseball is full of drama and romantic potential, yet in Words of the Pitcher, the game itself always seems an awkward intrusion into the story rather than a dramatic backdrop. Swanson also wastes the concept of a hero who is the fish out of water, dependent on the heroine, rather than the vice versa so often seen in romance novels. A lot of emotion and tension could have rested on this. But it’s never clear how much Kentaro even needs an interpreter. When romantic problems crop up (or the plot needs to jump a few weeks forward in time), Kentaro is suddenly able to do without Claire for days on end; but other times, we are told, she has to be at his side throughout the entire game to interpret for him.
Finally, the biggest disappointment was the romance itself. The misunderstandings and obstacles seemed trumped-up and silly to me, while real issues are left unexamined. Instead of an unrealistic arranged marriage plotline, why not deal with the real strain of Kentaro’s departure from tradition in marrying a non-Japanese? What about Claire’s non-entity parents, who seem to have no opinion either way on Kentaro? And instead of dwelling on one hostile sports columnist, why not look at the stress of conducting any relationship in the glare of the celebrity spotlight?
I admire Kei Swanson’s ideals and ambitions in tackling the kind of story that she did, but I think her story itself needed more work in both the plotting and the writing to make it a truly different and enjoyable read.