Monday, August 24, 2009
Publisher Comments:In her exquisite first novel, Waters explores the complex relationships among three generations of women bound by a painful family history and a culture in which custom dictates behavior. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, half-Japanese and half-American, feels like an outsider when she visits her family in Japan. She quickly learns that in traditional Kyoto, personal boundaries are firmly drawn and actions are not always what they appear. Sarah learns of a family secret — an interfamily adoption arranged in the throes of World War II. Her grandmother gave up one of her daughters to the matriarch of the family, and the two families have coexisted quietly, living on the same lane. While this arrangement is never discussed, it looms over the two households. In this carefully articulated world, where every gesture and look has meaning, Sarah must learn the rules by which her mother, aunts, and grandmother live. Delicately balancing drama and restraint, Waters captures these women — their deep passions and tumultuous histories — in this tender and moving novel about the power and beauty of mother-daughter relationships.
The story is actually told in three parts. The first part is when Sarah returns to Japan when she is 14. On that initial visit, Sarah learns that her grandmother’s sister-in-law adopted her grandmother’s second daughter when she was a baby. Because they live across the lane, the families see each other on a daily basis. But her grandmother and her aunt rarely talk to each other, for fear of hurting or disrespecting her aunt’s adoptive mother. The second part of the story takes place four years later, when Sarah again returns to Japan. And the final part is Sarah’s third visit, after she finishes college. In all three parts of the story, the focus is on the women, and the complex relationship between the two families…things that can and can’t be said and/or done, for fear of stepping over some never stated but definitely there boundary. There are some complex family dynamics happening in this book.
Despite the intimate look into a family’s secrets and past, this book could be very formal at times. Which is why I initially struggled with it. I know this is indicative of Japanese culture, and I’ll confess I’ve always struggled with an interest in that, too. Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on tone and voice. Also, all of the adult women are referred to by their married names, although not in conversation. Here is an example of what I’m trying to explain:
”Granny-san,” said Mrs. Rexford, returning to a tone of affectionate familiarity that her daughter nonetheless suspected was an “outside” voice, “sit down here on my cushion. Ne, please.” She smoothed the cotton fabric in a deferential gesture of invitation. Mrs. Asaki accepted, ducking her head in a pleased quarter-bow, and Mrs. Rexford went away to help her mother with tea. “Sarah,” she called back over her shoulder, switching once again to a disciplinary tone, “clear those dirty dishes off the table. Quickly.” –page 26-27
In the end, I’m glad I stuck with this one. It provides an intriguing glimpse of Japanese culture, as well as a look at how an intra-family adoption played out.