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Newsletter "Taboos are Broken, Embraced, and Explored in Jennifer Tseng's Debut Novel"

Date: Jul 6 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng starts out quietly―"It began at the library," is, after all, the first line―and for a good 60 pages remains that way, as Mayumi, the 41-year-old narrator, recounts meeting a 17-year-old boy who captures some, and eventually all, of her attention. A librarian with a young daughter and a frigid marriage, she finally screws up her courage to proposition him, and they begin a relationship, at which point it immediately becomes clear that the apparent staidness of Mayumi's life had obscured a passion of the most voracious, carnal variety. Like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's grey world bursts into Technicolor, at this point the novel abruptly busts open.

Having sex with the young man, who's never given a name, transforms Mayumi. She becomes a kinder, gentler person, she says, but also one who lies not only to her husband but her daughter, and who writes, "In the end, I didn't mind being a rapist so much as I expected." In moments, the veritable parade of literary allusion is a bit over obvious: Crime and Punishment is mentioned, along with Madame Bovary, The Lover, and, of course, Lolita. And the metaphors, particularly relating to waterways and islands, can feel a bit heavy handed. There is the library as an island of books, the frozen sea of Mayumi's marriage, the island Mayumi and the young man live on (an approximation of Martha's Vineyard, where the author, Jennifer Tseng, is a librarian), and the island of Mayumi's father (Japan). Ultimately, though, an unexpected development turns this novel into something infinitely more interesting. It turns out to not just be an exploration of untrammeled female desire and the psychodynamics of a May-December romance but to offer an uncannily apt elucidation of the way sadness can leave a person adrift, and how love can make even a very isolated person feel, momentarily, perhaps delusionally, less alone.

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