Reviews / September 2012 (Issue 18)

The Inter-cultural War of the Sexes: Robert N. Friedland's The Second Wedding of Doctor Geneva Song

by Kate Rogers


Robert N. Friedland, The Second Wedding of Doctor Geneva Song, Libros Libertad Publishing, 2011. 158 pgs.

Robert N. Friedland, a former sheriff and now human rights lawyer based in British Columbia, Canada, writes like someone used to stating the facts. His declarative prose is somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway's, but his subject matter couldn't be more different. Friedland's writing style lends itself to the satirical tone of his linked tales about Dr. Geneva Song and her dominated and much older husband, Sam Victor. At times, however, the author offers a little too much explanation. The reader does not need to be told that Dr. Song is "intelligent, well-educated and successful in her medical practice" when introducing her character. That becomes clear quickly enough as we observe her seduction of Sam on the examination table and her strategic comparison of a drop of blood which lands on her finger to a ruby ring.

As a widely published commentator on the political scene in British Columbia, Friedland clearly has insights into the Chinese immigrant community of Richmond, B.C., the setting for his tales. He can write with authority about the Chinese underworld and "The Wave of Immigration of Single Mothers from China." However, at times, his knowledge proves a hindrance, especially when his detailed character backgrounds and declarative style make the book feel like a plot outline or stage directions for a play. The section "Sister Deri and the Ling Yen Mountain Buddhist Temple," which presents the title character's past in great detail, reads like a history text about Chinese immigration to British Columbia. Although Sister Deri ends up being a central character in the book—as both Geneva's "spirit sister" and Sam's concubine (at his wife's insistence)—we could have learned about Chinese immigration patterns gradually throughout the larger narrative instead of in one concentrated dose.

So where does the satire come in? Friedland's experience with the Chinese community makes his depiction of various characters—both Chinese and Caucasian—seem authentic. He portrays the gweilos (Cantonese for white ghosts) as the most laughable and pitiable—whether they are Pastor Larry who seduces the young Asian immigrants who come to him for help, or the bitter and ultimately dangerous Matthew Masterton, whose yearning for Geneva drives him to commit terrible acts.

Geneva's husband, Sam Victor, an ageing Jewish lawyer, has a tendency to submit to strong women often at his own expense. (The irony of Sam's family name, Victor, and Matthew's, Masterton, works well to highlight the weaknesses of both men.) While Friedland makes Sam's foibles clear, he also portrays him sympathetically. At one point, his love for his wife and desire to protect her reputation leads him to omit telling the police the truth about her rape. Sam will do anything to please Geneva, including sleeping with her "spirit sister" and allowing his father-in-law to name their twin boys. Yet Sam's satirically submissive history makes it credible that he would allow Geneva call the shots. Before marrying Geneva, he has two consecutive relationships with female Chinese gangsters, the first of whom wins him in a Mah Jong game. He also willingly allows the family name of one gangster to be tattooed to his buttock, a brand which instead of offending Geneva, titillates her.

As a young law student, Sam also marries a Japanese woman from Tokyo. While still in that relationship, he sleeps with her sister, who while not pushing the idea, doesn't object either. The theme of Asian women encouraging (or at the very least accepting) their husband's concubines occurs repeatedly throughout the book. While it is interesting that such relationships may still be culturally sanctioned in some contexts, it is not entirely clear why the author returns to so frequently to the subject. Does he want to titillate Western readers with the idea of exotic spouses who encourage their partners' to pursue sex elsewhere? Or is Friedland highlighting how the different "rules" of intimacy in one culture can be bizarre to an outsider?

The best writing in the book can be found in the sections, "The Kotaki Sisters—the Story of Sam's First Marriage," "A Letter from Japan" and "In Shizuoka." Here some of Friedland's prose is poetic, such as when Tokyo girl Kiyoko finally realises that "her period coincided with the full moon—mangestu" because in Edmonton, Alberta, she can actually see the sky clearly for the first time. Likewise, the descriptions of Japanese life are written in an evocative style, which moves beyond the dry prose of some of the book's other sections.

The erotic nature of Geneva's self-discovery and Sam's liaisons with a former Buddhist nun make for compelling reads, but so many of the relationships in The Second Wedding of Doctor Geneva Song appear based on mutual exploitation. Friedland's satirical take on such relationships seems to warn the reader: "Caveat emptor and keep your wits about you in the inter-cultural war of the sexes."

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.