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Small Press Picks: "this story seems to be as much about isolation and what we do—or don’t do—to overcome it as it is about fulfilling desires."

Date: Jul 19 2015

It’s rare for my attention to linger on the cover of a book I’m about to read, but it certainly did when I picked up Jennifer Tseng’s poetic, richly imagined début novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. The cover features an overhead shot of a pale woman in a fuschia dress lying, arms outstretched, on a rippling blue-green sea. Though this might be the sea of happiness, the image suggests a more complicated truth. Underlying the tranquility and sensuality of the scene is a sense of isolation, even peril—seemingly contradictory threads that this novel, like its cover, weaves together deftly and powerfully.

The Mayumi of the title is a forty-something librarian who inhabits a tourist-attracting island off the coast of New England (think Martha’s Vineyard) with her beloved five-year-old daughter and her not-so-beloved husband. Though kind and decent, he no longer interests Mayumi erotically or otherwise. They share little more than affection for their daughter and a ramshackle house, where they sleep in separate beds.

In the first pages of the novel a new presence in Mayumi’s life sparks desire and also alarm: a handsome young man who approaches her at work to ask for a library card. In retrospect, Mayumi reflects, “I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.”

But Mayumi doesn’t retreat. Her obsession with the young man builds, and with time her attention to him—as he checks out or returns movies and books—is subtly reciprocated. When, eventually, she suggests a meeting at a local waterfall in the woods, he agrees. That meeting rapidly escalates to a regular assignation in a seemingly abandoned, fairy-tale-like cottage nearby.

To this book’s great credit, the story of the affair doesn’t unreel in any predictable ways. Though as erotically charged as you might expect, this story seems to be as much about isolation and what we do—or don’t do—to overcome it as it is about fulfilling desires. At one telling juncture in the story, Mayumi observes:

"[B]y reaching out to the young man, I had made myself an island. With each passing minute I drifted further from the main. … Between the receding shore of my former existence and the tiny green earth of my new life rose a dark, watery gulf. But I had yet to discover it. I was stranded in my joy."

The novel also overturns some troubling conventions of many traditional May-December romances (the ones in which May equals a young woman and December equals a middle-aged man). The relationship between Mayumi and the young man (who is never named) is not about possession or objectification; quite the contrary. In one especially moving passage of the novel, Mayumi thinks:

"Ultimately, I wanted him to love the World, to start fires with … others, to burn brightly in the distance long after I was cold ash. Those who think that one takes a young lover to escape thoughts of death are mistaken."

Although trials lie ahead for the love-struck Mayumi, and for the young man, they are not the ones you might expect. The surprising turns that the novel takes are as refreshing as they are tragic—and, in the end, even a little hopeful.

Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the way in which the characters, especially Mayumi, regard books and reading not only as enjoyable pastimes but as ways to build and cement relationships, platonic or otherwise. Through discussions and recommendations of books, Mayumi learns more about the young man and also forms a friendship with his mother (a whole other surprising yet retrospectively convincing angle to the novel).

Toward the end of the novel Mayumi reflects, in an exceptionally beautiful passage, on the importance of books and reading to her relationship with the young man:

"I remembered books I had read … with the young man and books he had read while lying next to me. I remembered the way he had chewed so intently on his fingernails while reading Moby Dick, as if trying to taste the experience. I thought about the sailors whom he had loved and admired. For them the real was not what happens but what is about to happen."

To conclude, I’m going to break a bit with tradition and let characters from Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness fill in the “Would My Pick Be Your Pick?” listing below—usually, my way of helping readers figure out if a book I’m recommending is aligned with their tastes. (I myself haven’t read any of Elena Ferrante’s books, but based on Mayumi’s recommendation, I’m very much looking forward to them.)