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Asian American Literature Fans: “[. . .] one of the most intriguing reads of this year.”

Date: Jul 18 2015

A Review of Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

Jennifer Tseng’s debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is certainly one of the most intriguing reads of this year. It centers on our titular narrator, Mayumi, who is a librarian and lives on an island connected located not far off the Massachusetts mainland. She’s married to a man named Var and has one daughter named Maria. She’s of mixed race background (with a Japanese father). Her life is relatively staid, until the arrival of a teenager, 17 years old, who shows up at the library and begins checking out books and movies there regularly. He is the subject of gossip among the librarians, especially because he is attractive. Mayumi begins to obsess about this teenager, and soon develops a serious infatuation with him, but there’s something about this connection that goes beyond mere fantasy. Indeed, Mayumi begins to realize that there may be an actual erotic connection between the two of them. Eventually, Mayumi becomes emboldened by their increasingly charged encounters, and the two begin an affair. Though some may blanch at the Lolita-style plot—indeed the novel references many novels involving inappropriate, intergenerational relationships, including Marguerite Duras’s The Lover—Tseng’s work is all her own and certainly one that is painstakingly careful in its depiction of a love affair that some would consider to be socially unacceptable. Mayumi is a self-conscious narrator. At one point, she does wonder about whether or not she’s having an affair with a child and not surprisingly looks up the Massachusetts age of consent laws—she’s okay, you see, the age of consent is 16. But unlike Nabokov and Duras, Tseng is delving into a different intergenerational paradigm that is enirely unlike the “cougar” paradigm that has become part of our lingua franca. For Tseng, the novel becomes a way to consider a deeper philosophical issue of aging and the mid-life crisis that a woman in her forties might endure. Mayumi is seeking some sort of deeper fulfillment that she cannot find from her marriage, her motherhood, or even her status as a lover of a male teenager. The concluding arc is an intriguing one that may surprise, and a desire to connect more deeply to other island cultures comes off as an important developmental trajectory that firmly fleshes out a deeper subconscious at the heart of this novel concerning homeland and ethnic histories. Definitely, a recommended read. Oh, and just as a note: Tseng is also author of two other poetry collections (Red Flower, White Flower and The Man with My Face), so you might check those out as well.