The novel begins as Shoko, an elderly Japanese woman married to an American, reflects on her life, her relationship with her Japanese family members, and her daughter. Having had a huge falling out with her brother, Shoko now dreams of returning to Japan, and making peace, especially given her current worsening heart problems. Due to Shoko's illness, her daughter Sue goes in her place and meets the family she never knew. The first half is narrated by Shoko until Sue takes up the narrative and describes her trip to Japan. When it comes to these types of dual narratives, I always tend to prefer the older generation to the younger generation. I don't know if that's because the older generation tends to get to speak first or if the younger characters are just genuinely boring. Certainly when the reader knows all about their mother, and then reads about the daughter whining about how cold the mom is, it is hard to feel much sympathy. I think that Those Who Save Us actually started from the perspective of the daughter and I still preferred the mother. Maybe it's just that there is something about the time periods discussed that make it seem like the older generation actually faced challenges and hardship, while it is hard to feel sympathetic for someone that is simply struggling with day to day life - at least when they are set up as a parallel to someone who faced larger challenges. Anyway, it was especially pronounced in this case.
While Shoko's story wasn't anything new, and seems to be rather typical of narratives involving Asian women assimilating to the West in general, I quite enjoyed her story. Her life in the United States ended up being a bit disappointing and simple given the promise she had shown in the beginning and the opportunities she thought she had. Still, she doesn't seem to have any complaints, but has accepted her life, and also knows that whatever her husband's shortcomings may be (lack of ambition), he is kind, loving and forgiving. There is certainly a generation gap between her and her children; basically it's all the normal stuff that shows up in these narratives but Shoko still comes off as a sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, her daughter's side of the story adds little. Her daughter, a precocious tween, is annoying and loud while Sue is timid and stuck in a job she dislikes. Their trip to Japan just reads as unrealistic and ludicrous. Helena is loud and obnoxious for most of the trip, Sue apparently doesn't know how airports work, and their plan seemed to have been to go to the last known address of one realitve and track them down from there (Shoko and her now deceased sister had stayed in touch - I would figure somebody could have made a phone call at some point). It just all seemed too nicely wrapped up, everybody spoke English so Sue didn't even have to rely on her broken Japanese, and they all get along. I guess this could count as a spoiler, but really the last half of the book was just not well written, and it's not like people read these books for the surprise - they are books about relationships. Even the "secret" the backcover alludes to is revealed in the first half of the book, or earlier.
Basically, if this had just been Shoko's story, I would have enjoyed this novel though it was similar to many other coming to America stories/mother-daughter stories. However, the last half written from Sue's perspective soured me on the novel. There was no drama once she took over, and she and her daughter were not appealing characters.