Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Favorites: Evoking the spirit of Japan

The Favorites: A Novel The Favorites: A Novel

Mary Yukari Waters

My rating:
5 of 5 stars

A rare gem of a first novel, this book beautifully evokes the sights, smells, sounds, depth of color, and culture of Japan.

Sarah, born to a Japanese mother and an American father, returns to Japan after living in the U.S. for several years (
author Mary Yukari Waters has a similar life story). While there, she discovers layer after layer of secrets under the surface of family ritual and civility. Although she viewed her mother Yoko as clumsy and out of place as a non-native English speaker in the U.S., Sarah realizes that she is a vivacious, dynamic woman in her native Japan.

Sarah's mother and her grandmother have an extremely tight bond that is not witnessed anywhere else in her life. Down the street lives another part of their family--her grandmother's sister-in-law with her daughter and family. An invisible wall of politeness exists between the two households. Eventually Sarah discovers that after her grandmother's husband died in the war, she was pressured to marry the other brother and to give up her infant daughter to her sister-in-law to raise, a deep loss that haunts both mother and daughter and wraps the family in tension. Yoko is clearly her mother's favorite, and by extension, Sarah is cherished over her cousins who live in the other household. Sarah is ambivalent about this favoritism--she secretly likes being in the inner circle, as she feels like an "other" because she is part foreigner. At the same time she is acutely aware of the pain and ache felt by her aunt, who always thought she was unwanted.

The Favorites is about the complicated, intricate lives of Japanese women and the little universes of Japanese families and households. The men are largely in the background, handing over their salary to their wives, who make sure they have everything they need. The women clearly run the households, manage all family relationships, and ensure proper ritual and protocols are followed, including paying respects and making sacrifices to their ancestors at the household altar.

I found my reading to be stuttered a bit by Yukari Waters' use of Mrs. Kobayashi, Mrs. Nishimura, and Mrs. Asaki, etc., for her characters. I realized how rare it is to read a book that uses surnames in narrative and not just in dialogue (like Jane Austen-era books, for example). Although I found this difficult at times, I believe the author made a conscious choice to better match the Japanese style of referring to people by their last names (Kobayashi-san, Nishimura-san, and Asaki-san). Some family secrets (such as more background on how Yoko's family reacted when she decided to marry a foreigner) are never unraveled, in keeping with the style of the book. There is much beneath the surface.

(Reading this book made me wonder whether the open and accepted habit of "playing favorites" in family, work, or school relationships is more common in class-conscious, hierarchical, or seniority-driven societies. My British husband and I have often talked about the open acceptance of the tendency to choose favorites in his family and in British society. As an American, playing favorites strikes me as terribly unjust and unfair, and I believe that American society tends to consciously fight this tendency, based on the fact our country was founded on principles of justice and equality, even if it hasn't always implemented those principles effectively. What do you think?)

The Favorites is not a plot-driven story; if you are looking for action, you'd best look elsewhere. Instead, this novel intricately portrays these women's relationships and ways of life. Yukari Waters painstakingly depicts the effect different seasons or traditions of Japan have on the five senses, such as the beautiful interplay of colors in Japanese food and pottery, or the smells and sounds of freshly falling rain. She deftly portrays the subtle and outright differences between Japanese and American culture. Of all the books I've read about Japan in the past 20 years since I left, this one most effectively describes the complex relationships and protocols each Japanese must adhere to and best captures Japan's complicated spirit.

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