Honolulu by Alan Brennert (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 360 pp)

Born in New Jersey and raised in Southern California, Alan Brennert received a Bachelor’s degree in English from California State University at Long Beach. In addition to novels, Brennert writes short stories, screenplays, teleplays, and musicals. For his work on L.A. Law, he was awarded an Emmy in 1991. During his career, Brennert has also won a People’s Choice Award and a Nebula Award.

I love Hawai’i

Hawai’i is one of my favorite places. I visited several times during my childhood, and even spent my honeymoon on the secluded tropical paradise of Kauai. Last year, I read and briefly reviewed Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, and absolutely loved it. To review, Moloka’i was a famous leper colony from 1873-1969. I was enamored with the story of people struggling with Hansen’s disease and dealing with the separation from families amidst the beautiful backdrop of the Hawai’ian paradise and culture.

Naturally, I thought Brennert’s next book, Honolulu, would provide another great read. Moreover, I’ve actually been to the city of Honolulu, so I thought I would resonate with its setting more readily. Honolulu is a tale of a Korean “picture bride” (one who is given in long-distance marriage based only on a picture) who escapes to Honolulu in search of a better life, but doesn’t necessarily find it.

The Life of a Korean Picture Bride

As the plot unfolds, Regret (the main character’s given Korean name) encounters physical abuse by her given husband in a rural Hawaiian town on the outskirts of Honolulu. She leaves him—only after a miscarriage from a beating—and travels toward Honolulu. There in the city proper, she settles as a seamstress, meets a new husband, starts a restaurant business, and earns an education.
And, there you have it. That’s the basic plot of the book. Honolulu was a decent read, but I was extremely disappointed having read Brennert’s previous book Moloka’i. So, in an effort to explain why this book didn’t work as well, here’s a pointed list of what to do when writing historical fiction.
What Not To Do
1. If your book is entitled “Honolulu” and actually covers the period during the Pearl Harbor bombing, don’t limit the description of the most famous event in the city of Honolulu to a mere single paragraph.
2. Pick a character that is going through extreme struggle (like Regret did with her husband’s abuse) and stay with it for a while. Sure, an abusive husband is an absolutely terrible thing, so don’t dismiss it to talk about being a seamstress for several hundred pages.
3. Spend time on the culture where the book is set. There were times that Queen Liliuokalani (the last queen of Hawai’i) was mentioned, but in truth, not much was described in terms of the surroundings, or the culture of the time. Yes, a few traditional Hawaiian words were given their respective etymologies, but that doesn’t constitute a great description of Hawaiian culture.
4. Small business ventures do not constitute entertaining reading.
5. If you know how to write historical fiction, like Moloka’i, stick to what works—use the gripping stories of the characters firmly based in a historical context. Wide acclaim for one novel shouldn’t equal lazy writing on the next.
In synopsis, the book was interesting, but I never felt particularly moved as I did with Moloka’i. Therefore, I know that Brennert can do better, as he does write good historical fiction based in the beautiful islands of Hawai’i. If you, like me, find a fondness for Hawai’i—this book can work. Honolulu does provide some historical and cultural background, and gives you a sense of how the islands functioned in the past, but in comparison to his other novels it ultimately failed. I suggest that if you decide to read one of his books, stick to Moloka’i.

Verdict: 2 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson
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4 Comments Leave a comment
  • Sam (Tiny Library)

    Goodreads keeps recommending this book to me and though it might not have been completely right for you, it sounds like I would love it.

  • Andrew Jacobson

    Well – enjoy! I would recommend trying Moloka'i first, however – it has received much higher acclaim overall, and the trend I see is that at the very least, readers seem to like Molokai more.

  • europeanne

    I, too, loved Brennert's Moloka'i, and was very disappointed in his Honolulu.

    I lived in Hawaii for 8 years, and one of my big regrets is not visiting Moloka'i.


  • Andrew Jacobson

    Anne – I'm glad I'm not alone. I miss Hawai'i, that's for sure. Moloka'i is one of the paces I've always wanted to visit, but it's so deserted I don't know how easy it is to access.

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