three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
user_rating: 
0

A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise

A-WestThen"When you’re from paradise," Smith wonders, "where do you go from there?" West of Then asks some difficult questions about love, loyalty, and identity. When Karen Morgan, a fifth-generation Hawaiian with ancestors from the Mayflower, abandoned her daughters for a life on Honolulu’s streets, Smith, seven, went to live with her father and stepfather. In 2002, she decided to "save" her mother, now a homeless junkie. Smith, now in her early 30s and living in Manhattan, recounts the history of Hawaii, the collapse of her family’s sugar fortunes, and the islands’ drug and prostitution subculture. In the end, Smith’s search for her mother became a search for herself.
Simon & Schuster. 319 pages. $24. ISBN: 0743236793

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the things that makes West of Then so potent is the absence of easy explanations or answers. In a book that mingles a rainbow of intoxicating Hawaiian memories with the multigenerational story of her family’s disintegration, Ms. Smith winds up capturing all the strain and anger and messiness of the trouble she faces."
Janet Maslin

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The three stories—Tara’s, Karen’s and Hawaii’s—are one even as they progress parallel to one another. … The stories are fragments, though Smith threads them nearly seamlessly with a vividness that evokes both beauty and pain."
Ana Caban

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"West of Then is an enraging if beautiful book: you want to stride into its pages and get Tara out of there. … And through it all, under the drama, seeps the numbing boredom of the heroin addict—that place where narcissism and destruction connect to do their level best to tear down ‘ordinary’ society." Carolyn See

People Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Smith’s intelligent treatment makes a memorable pairing of beauty and sadness." Lynn Andriani

Critical Summary

Smith’s first memoir intertwines different stories that pit her memories and experiences against the larger backdrop of Hawaii’s history. Smith offers evocative descriptions of the state, from its sugarcane history and cultural clashes to its unparalleled beauty. A thin line separates this beauty from Smith’s painful attempts to reconnect with her mother. Critics agree that her account is in turns intelligent, sad, and dazzling. Yet for all its merits, a few critics thought Smith somewhat naïve in her fierce, nonjudgmental loyalty to her mother, and her mother—for all her problems—somewhat dull. Even with its charm, Carolyn See of the Washington Post called the memoir a "sorry fable of how futile it is to ask for love from a person who has none to give."

Supplemental Reading

Things My Mother Never Told Me | Blake Morrison (2003): 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003. A son explores his late mother’s secret history. "I don’t expect to read a more enthralling memoir all year." NY Times Book Review

non-fiction