Friday, June 19, 2009

The Favorites

Mary Yukari Waters’ The Favorites is a quiet, restrained first novel about quiet, restrained Japanese women. The whole of this intergenerational family story is more powerful than its parts, with a style so spare that it suggests the manners of Japanese culture. But strong emotions boil beneath the surface of formal courtesy. Different parts of the novel are relayed from shifting points of view: the outsider, Sarah Rexworth, a Japanese-American girl brought up primarily in California, slowly learns the nuances of Japanese conversation; the relationship of her complicated grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi, to Sarah's mother is so close that it inspires familial envy; Sarah’s jealous great-aunt, Mrs. Asaki, who adopted Mrs. Kobayashi’s second daughter during WWII, spies on and sabotages her daughter's visits to her birth mother; and Mrs. Nishimura, the quiet, repressed adopted daughter, speaks in polite cliches except to her children and is regarded as bland and unemotional by adults.

Surprisingly, the most flamboyant character is seen only through others’ eyes, Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Rexford, a vivacious, brilliant, charming woman in Japan, sadly underestimated and awkward in the U.S. because of her language skills - good on paper, but slow in speaking.

The novel begins in Sarah’s adolescence in the ‘70s, when she and Mrs. Rexford visit her grandmother in Kyoto for the summer. Waters’ delicate descriptions of complicated social manners, houses, and nature blend easily with dialogue and Sarah’s thoughts. Every item in the beautiful house has meaning from the past and present.

As Mrs. Kobayashi says, “There is no such thing as just my generation.”

The clock was a shiny modern piece, incongruous with the aged wall post on which it hung. The wooden post dated back to a more traditional time, when aesthetically minded craftsmen used to leave small remnants of nature in their work. Each wall post in the room retained some individual quirk: a curious burl, or the serpentine tracks of beetle larvae just below the surface of the wood.

Traditions and innovations are woven so beautifully into the women's daily lives that Sarah wonders why the relationship with Mrs. Asaki and Mrs. Nishimura is so strained. She gradually comes to understand the resentments and pressures caused by the adoption of her aunt - Mrs. Kobayashi, after her husband’s death in World War II, was coerced into marrying her husband’s younger brother and giving away her youngest daughter to her domineering, infertile sister-in-law, Mrs. Askaki.

As the years pass, Waters describes events through the eyes of Mrs. Asaki, Mrs. Kobayashi, and Mrs. Nishimura. When Sarah’s mother dies in a car accident, the relationship among the three Japanese women changes. And when Sarah visits as an adult, a CPA bored with her job, she analyzes the changing balance of power in her family and accepts her jeopardized position as one of the favorites.

In college, Sarah had learned that history was the study of power rising and power falling. Sitting here, leafing through the pages of another women’s life, she felt the truth of this and was humbled. It occurred to her that her own past - the trio of her mother and grandmother and herself that had once seemed extraordinary, strong and shining like the sun - was hardly unique. Countless other suns, like her great-aunt’s, had risen and fallen as a matter of course, each with its own forgotten story, its own poignance.

This novel is akin to ikebana, the spare Japanese art of floral arranging, “a disciplined art form in which nature and humanity are brought together” (Wikpedia). Although it may be too still for some tastes, there is passion beneath the surface. But the brief narrative is slow, and occasionally Waters spins out a scene too long: I feel that I'm on the outside even when I'm inside one of the women's heads. One of the characters, Mrs. Asaki, is so stiff that she never captures my interest. Because of the presence of Sarah, The Favorites could probably be cross-marketed as YA fiction. I wish that the older generations of women had been more fully delineated, their problems not reduced to an after-school special.

Waters is also the author of The Laws of Evening, a superb collection of short stories, and, to be honest, her style is more suited to the shorter form. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

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