Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng

This is a difficult book to get through, partly due to subject matter and partly due to the writing. To deal with the latter first: I don't mean to imply that the writing is bad. In fact, it's very good. But it's also incredibly dense, rich, loamy. There is little dialogue and it's written in the first person, which means we spend the entirety inside another person's head. For a rather slim volume, it took a while for me to get through it, and there were a couple times when I wondered whether I should give it up. I tend towards more plot-driven books, as might be obvious from many of my other reviews, so for a more cerebral reader it probably wouldn't be as challenging. That being said, the writing really is spectacular, driving and forceful and poetic.

Now as for the subject matter: Mayumi is a 41-year-old librarian living on an island off the East Coast of the U.S. with her 4-year-old daughter and her husband, with whom she does not share a bed, any interests, conversation, or essentially a life. One day a young man comes into the library and she quickly becomes enamored of and infatuated with him. Against all odds, they begin a torrid affair that lasts until the young man, who is 17, leaves to help clean up the Russian River in Northern California. The young man is never named. I noticed this about a third of the way through, and as soon as I did it became obvious that we would never learn his name. He is fleeting, an object of obsession that is more a possession than a person, though Mayumi loves him dearly. There is little graphic sex, though euphemism is used frequently. And Mayumi, being a librarian, thinks always in terms of books and stories, making this a sort of meta, self-referential novel aimed at other librarians/booksellers or very avid book-lovers.

Many will shy away from "Mayumi" because of its forbidden subject matter, and I won't blame them for it. It's hard not to feel as if some of Mayumi's illicit sexuality is rubbing off on you as you read. It's a beautifully written book, but not very accessible and certainly not for everyone.


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