Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Favorites by Mary Yukari Waters


Kyoto 1978. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford feels like an outsider when she returns to Japan for the first time in five years, to stay with her mother's family. As Sarah begins to reacquaint herself with her relatives and learn more about the culture she came from, she discovers a secret that stretches across three generations, its presence looming over the family home. She quickly learns that personal boundaries are firmly drawn in traditional Kyoto, and actions are not always what they appear ...

When Liz offered me a chance to review this book I couldn't wait. I love books on Japan; when I first read Memoirs of a Geisha I thought it was an autobiography (shh, don't tell anyone!).To cover up my mortification I read Mineko Iwasaki's book Geisha of Gion and by this point I was addicted to the genre. The Favourites covers a period from 1978 to 1988 which, like Geisha of Gion, depicts a time of massive change. Japan is wrestling with tradition and the influx of Western ways that seem to affect everything from food to behaviour.

Sarah is a child of mixed race; half Japanese and half American. Upon her return with her Japanese mother on a family visit she feels her differences keenly. She's a plucky and sensitive heroine who barely recognises her mother, Yoko, once they arrive to Japan. The author shows us through Sarah's memories how she argues with her mother back in America over fitting in, wearing the right clothes and eating Western food. Once in Japan, Sarah realises that her mother is regarded as successful, a member of the elite and full of confidence. We watch Sarah question herself as she sees the close relationship between Yoko and her mother.

Sarah has more to learn too. Her Grandmother's sister-in-law lives in an adjoining house with her daughter and two grand-daughters. These close relations lead to a complex ritual of behaviour and hide a family secret. As this secret is revealed and played out we watch Sarah change from a child to maturity dealing with the difficult realities of being both a stranger in her homeland and at odds with the structured rules of etiquette. We jump ahead twice in the novel; once by four years and then again by six. It is these changes in time that make the book so beautiful and bitter sweet. As Japan changes and Sarah grows we see the complex family ties from different angles.

Apart from the gorgeous language the structure is stunning too. We go from season to season with changes in flowers, food and table ware which is mirrored in the characters going through the various seasons in their life. We move backwards and forwards through the aid of photo albums that Sarah flips through to reminiscences from the older characters. This must have been well planned but it flows in a way that makes you appreciate it without it feeling contrived.

I can't do justice to this book in my review; it's a perfectly structured rare thing. I can't remember when I read a book that contained such beautiful writing that it gave me a lump in my throat. From the descriptions of the different meals and types of fish, the changing seasons that match perfectly with the ageing characters to the self-realisation of Sarah herself. The whole thing is stunning, just read it and see.


Liz said...

Argh! I want it back to read it too!

:-) So glad you enjoyed it - it sounds wonderful.

Essjay said...

Do you want me to send you my copy ;)

Liz said...

Ha ha - no, it's fine! You crazy kid.

Avalon's Willow said...

I've got a quick question for you. You mention that Sarah is a child of mixed race but then go on to describe her as half Japanese and half American. That's describing her as mixed culturally, not ethnically.

Or does American automatically equal white/Caucasian, and to you and others, has no need for further qualifiers?

Did you realize your words immediately put everyone who is American but not white as NOT AMERICAN? You know, that insulting question that not white Americans get asked: "Where are you from, no really?"

Liz said...


Thanks for stopping by. To be honest, I have to say that what you mention has genuinely not occurred to me or Sarah!

I do however get what you mean - thanks for being lovely and pointing it out to us. You'll appreciate that neither Sarah nor I considered the implication of the statement and thanks to people like you who are keen to correct mis-guided preconceptions, it's startled us both into realising how one remark can be misconstrued completely. There was no insult meant, of this you can be assured.

However, I'm not going to amend the review - because I'd like others to read it and then these comments, and get what we were talking about!

You are a star, thanks for stopping by! I've just checked out your blogs and dude, you rock!

Essjay said...

Hi Avalon Willow

You're right, I should have stated that she was half East Asian and half Caucasian and I apologise for any offence. I'm often asked where I'm from and when I reply England am asked, "Yes, but where originally?" so understand how hurtful it can be.

I think I was caught up in the flavour of the book where she is often called, "half American," and let it run into my review.

Again, apologies

Avalon's Willow said...

Liz, Essjay,

Thank you for your gracious replies. I was really frustrated/sad at the thought of having to pull your blog off my feedreader should the conversation go badly; I do tend to be rather abrupt when disappointed.

When I read the book myself, it will be easier to see if mentions of Sarah as half American are in relation to her being not Japanese in culture and perceptions vs American automatically equaling Caucasian.

The latter perception has often resulted in individuals with long family histories in America being equated as immigrants (then compounded with the perception that immigrants are all non-white, recent and don't really belong).

For reviews of YA Lit, it always seems best not to set up potential young readers to fall into thinking of themselves or others as only being real Americans if they look a certain way. And it was especially ugh, when the topic of the book revolves around a young girl trying to figure out if she's really Japanese.

Note: Would you consider a link from the phrase in the original post that leads to the comments? Some who read it might not get around to reading the comments if they're hit with disappointment and/or disgust.

PS: Thank you for the blog compliments.

Liz said...

Hey AW!

Phew - thank goodness we've not been struck off your Xmas Card List!

And I have to admit, like you, I get a bit abrubt about things I feel strongly about. These things do happen but I'm glad and pleased that you came to talk to us about it, and not just walked away without taking action - I really do think that that's much worse!

And I honestly think that if someone feels strongly about a review, they will comment - like you've done - so I don't think I need to add any further links to Sarah's review. Besides, the permalinks open up both the review and the comments anyway. I am hoping that no one feels disgust or disappointment about the review because I know how long Sarah's worked on it and you can tell it came straight from her heart as she loved it so much.

Also, just a reminder: this isn't YA. This is adult fiction here in the UK with Simon & Schuster supplying us with this copy. I'm unsure how it was marketed in the States.

Do let us know via a comment back here, once you've had the chance to read The Favorites for yourself! Perhaps you would like to speak to the author and do an interview for your own blog(s)?

Yunaleska said...

This sounds an excellent book. I love anything to do with Japan too.

Essjay said...

It's a magical book, you'll love it :)