Mother’s Day was celebrated in the United States this past weekend and this novel could be viewed as a kind of delicious dream fantasy for just that kind of woman--mature, thoughtful, caring women who have been around the block a few times. It introduces us to the intimate and internal lives of Japanese wives and mothers, some of whom were thought to suffer in silence as part of their cultural mystique. The main character is not a mother; Mitsuki is a wife, and the daughter who cares for her aging mother. Her sister Natsuki was beautiful, talented, and made a fortuitous marriage to a wealthy man. There had never been any hint Natsuki would take care of the things that needed doing.
Throughout Part One we experience the calculus a family member must make when an aging relative suddenly becomes unable to care for themselves as independent adults. What makes this particularly interesting to those who haven’t gone through it before is the barrage of decisions that blast apart any privacy a person might reasonably expect, even in a family, and how this affects individuals experiencing the trauma and those trying to help out.
If Mitsuki sounds a little resistant to the demands placed on her when talking to herself at times, she is already the poster child for trying to make dying a positive experience for everyone involved, despite the impersonal nature of hospital care and the uncertainties involved in geriatric health. Complicating the picture of her mother’s illness and death is the fact Mitsuki newly discovers her husband has a somewhat serious dalliance with a younger woman. Bad timing for the husband.
Part Two is in some ways the respite after the storm, and in others a legitimate Part 2 of decision-making and planning for big changes. Mitsuki engages our every sense as she describes her visit, during winter, to a neglected lakeside hotel posing as a fake Swiss villa. She remembers the place from her childhood. Several other people show up at the same time, for an extended ten-day respite before Christmas. When a local psychic, “the sort who bleaches their hair blond and rides a Harley Davidson,” predicts one of the long-stay hotel guests is there to commit suicide in the lake, the attention of hoteliers and guests are riveted.
Mitsuki is there to sort out her options concerning a husband who serially strays, her feelings regarding the difficult time with her mother, and how she can still have a life that is interesting and fulfilling, despite its losses. This part of the novel has many characteristics of the successful mystery novel: a lonely heroine, a villa in decline, an overly solicitous staff, the proximity and possibility of death, a bunch of similarly stranded folks including at least one handsome eligible bachelor. Laced through it all are the experiences, constraints, and history of both westernized easterners and traditional Japanese, endlessly intriguing people with whom we share a bond and yet admire for their exoticism and differentness.
The clarity with which Mitsuki addresses her issues, her deliberate decision-making, her bare honesty to herself about motives and options, her interest in pursuing meaningful engagement is inspiring both to the recently bereaved and to those who have faced these issues, successfully or not. If there is a best-girlfriend reveal to the storyline, it is not unwelcome. While Natsuki sounded wistful and maybe even envious about everything working out for Mitsuki before it actually does, we readers reserve celebration, knowing the odds of the pieces coming together with no errors.
Minae Mizumura studied literature in the United States, at Yale. She wrote this novel in Japanese, and after an earlier novel described in an interview with Bookslut writer Corinna Cliff how the Japanese language became even more beautiful and desirable to her after studying English.
"Nevertheless, now that I have had more experience with both languages, I'm more sensitive to the uniqueness of Japanese. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the language for me is how its writing uses three kinds of signs: Chinese characters -- which mostly function as ideograms -- and two sets of phonograms. The resulting text contains an embarrassment of riches impossible to replicate in other languages. I'll try to explain it. Let's say you are reading a page describing a flower garden. Names of flowers jump out at you. They are rendered in complex Chinese characters that can't help standing out as they are embedded in phonograms much simpler in form. And since flower names in ideograms usually have poetic connotations, looking at the page, it really seems as if you are looking at a garden filled with clusters of fragrant and beautiful flowers."Mizumura’s experience with English (and French!) culture and language make this a hugely successful crossover novel featuring European, American, and Asian influences in a rich feast. Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary becomes practically an incantation, it receives mention so often. Readers are advised to revisit that work to see how it is used in this case to add an extra layer of depth. J.W. Carpenter's translation is terrifically smooth, so smooth one only rarely pulls back long enough to imagine the work in Japanese.
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