The Sweetest Fruits

Publication date: September 3, 2019, Viking Books.

In The Sweetest Fruits, three women, Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu, tell the story of their life with Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a globetrotting Greek-Irish writer best known as the author of America’s first Creole cookbook and for his many volumes about the folklore and ghost stories of Meiji Era Japan. An immigrant thrice over, Hearn is now remembered at best as a keen cultural observer and at worst as a purveyor of exotica.

In their own unorthodox ways, the three women are also intrepid travelers and explorers. Their accounts witness Hearn’s remarkable life but also seek to witness their own existence and luminous will to live unbounded by gender, race, and the mores of their time. Each is a gifted storyteller with her own precise reason for sharing her story, and together their voices offer a revealing, often contradictory portrait of Hearn.

Rosa Antonia Cassimati, a Greek woman tells of how she willed herself out of her father’s cloistered house, married a British Army officer, and in 1852 came to Ireland with her son Hearn, then only two years old, only to leave without him soon after. Alethea Foley, born into slavery on a Kentucky plantation, made her way to Cincinnati, Ohio, after the Civil War to work as a boarding house cook, where in 1872 she met and married Hearn, a young, up-and-coming newspaper reporter, despite the tell-tale warning signs. In Matsue, Japan, in 1891, Koizumi Setsu, a former samurai’s daughter is introduced to Hearn, who was the “New Foreign Teacher” there, and became the mother of his four children and his unsung literary collaborator.

With brilliant sensitivity and an unstinting eye, The Sweetest Fruits illuminates the women’s tenacity and their struggles in this novel that circumnavigates the globe in the search for love, family, home, and belonging.

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