Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

by Jennifer Tseng

I probably only saw one review of this book, so I can't say for sure it's overrated, but it's definitely not a modern-day Lolita (another overrated book, IMHO). Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness does have some brilliant moments, but it's inconsistent and, at times, annoying. I did finish it, though, so ... B-minus?

The story is about a 41-year-old librarian in a cold, loveless marriage who has an affair with a 17-year-old library patron, whom she only ever calls "the young man." (At the end of the book, a big deal is made of her not saying his name.) She simultaneously befriends, or is befriended by, the young man's mother.

Personally, I found the coldness and loveless-ness of her marriage unconvincing, as it was only briefly explored; I guess the reader is just supposed to take her word for it, which seems problematic when we know the narrator will soon be on shaky moral ground.

Another weakness is the abundance of imagery used to describe Mayumi's emotional states and view of the world. I expected a more constant motif from a poet turned novelist. The switching between naturalistic and man-made imagery initially had me intrigued, hoping something interesting would develop from the juxtaposition, but it didn't pan out. The rather obvious ocean/island theme (she lives on an island, she feels adrift, she is and island) takes over.

Two-thirds through the book, an interesting twist occurs, forcing the reader and protagonist to re-evaluate her transgression. In a way it's just a minor detail, but the revelation surprised me enough that I exclaimed to an empty room. Ultimately, though, the effect on the character's sense of guilt is less than I expected. And another twist follows shortly, bringing things to a head and also cutting things off abruptly. Better to end an affair with a bang then a whimper, I guess.

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