Title: Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
Author: Jennifer Tseng
Synopsis: Books may be Mayumi Saito’s greatest love and her one source of true pleasure. Forty-one years old, disenchanted wife and dutiful mother, Mayumi’s work as a librarian on a small island off the coast of New England feeds her passion for reading and provides her with many occasions for wry observations on human nature, but it does little to remedy the mundanity of her days. That is, until the day she issues a library card to a shy seventeen-year-old boy and swiftly succumbs to a sexual obsession that subverts the way she sees the library, her family, the island she lives on, and ultimately herself.
Wary of the consequences of following through on her fantasies, Mayumi hesitates at first. But she cannot keep the young man from her thoughts. After a summer of overlong glances and nervous chitchat in the library, she finally accepts that their connection is undeniable. In a sprawling house emptied of its summer vacationers, their affair is consummated and soon consolidated thanks to an explosive charge of erotic energy. Mayumi’s life is radically enriched by the few hours each week that she shares with the young man, and as their bond grows stronger thanks not only to their physical closeness but also to their long talks about the books they both love, those hours spent apart seem to Mayumi increasingly bleak and intolerable. As her obsession worsens, in a frantic attempt to become closer to the young man, Mayumi nervously befriends another librarian patron, the young man’s mother. The two women forge a tenuous friendship that will prove vital to both in the most unexpected ways when catastrophe strikes.
Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this finished copy!
When Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness came through my mailbox, I was both intrigued and worried. I don’t mind books with taboo subject matters, but I was sure I was going to feel quite uncomfortable with the relationship between Mayumi and the Boy. Oddly, I wasn’t as disturbed as I thought I would be, though I did find elements of this book weirder than the taboo relationship.
First I am going to praise the writing, because I did read this book in the span of two days and it’s pretty captivating. Tseng really envelopes the reader into her prose, even when there’s barely anything going on story-wise. The story itself goes through four seasons of Mayumi and the Boy’s relationship, her connection to Violet, his mother, and the worry that she will be discovered by her husband and others. That is the whole book in a nutshell, and yet the prose really makes the reader feel connected to what is going on.
That being said, I disliked Mayumi’s character and the stereotyping of librarians in the novel. That rubbed me the wrong way more than the relationship between Mayumi and the Boy, because there is this stupid assumption that library people, though friendly, don’t want to talk or really deal with patrons (not true, by the way). Mayumi plays into this stereotype so badly, and makes for frustrating character to care about. There’s no real drama in the novel, no real climax. The ending is pretty much a cop out given this larger build that were are given between Mayumi and the Boy. In a lot of ways, I felt rather cheated.
But I kept reading on, because seriously, Tseng’s prose and descriptions were what kept me going. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness isn’t a bad book at all, but there’s larger holes that don’t get filled very well. If the taboo subject matter isn’t your thing, I’d definitely recommend staying clear, but if you can get past that, there is an interesting narrative being discussed here.