I came to the novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness via Twitter, which happens more and more these days. I commented on the lovely cover and an on-the-ball PR person offered me a copy to read. I get sent a lot of books, many of them not that interesting, but the premise for this one captivated me: 41 year old librarian has an illicit affair with a 17 year old boy on an island that is probably Martha's Vineyard.
Firstly, I used to work in a library and I adore them; secondly I'm always fascinated by forbidden love; thirdly my friend lives on the Vineyard, on and off, and I'm intrigued by the place. And fourthly, I love both Nabokov's Lolita and Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal, so I was interested to see how author Jennifer Tseng would handle the younger lover scenario in this, her début novel.
Well, Tseng does the cross-generational relationship absolutely beautifully. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is an accomplished novel of obsession, aloneness, fulfilment and loss; it is also about motherhood, friendship and generosity. And best of all, it is screamingly funny a lot of the time.
Tseng, who has published two award winning poetry collections and is a librarian on the Vineyard, was raised in California by a Chinese immigrant engineer father and a first generation German American microbiologist mother. Her second novel Woo will be based on her father's life. Her début clearly draws in part from her own life and Mayumi, though a literary creation, has all the contrariness of any flesh and blood, perimenopusal woman who is aching with loneliness.
Tseng has managed, like Nabokov, to make a sympathetic, hilarious narrator of Mayumi because her voice is at once self-deprecating, intelligent and contradictory. There is a gorgeous honesty to her and you can't help but love her and follow her into the inexplicable obsession with the unnamed young man. His beauty is what draws her to him initially, and the sex scenes are delicately done, but she soon has a kind of maternal interest in his well-being and is fascinated with every aspect of his - and his mother Violet's - life.
Mayumi is a woman 'distracted by ideas', as the young man points out. She is also slightly unhinged by lust. The balance for her is keeping the affair secret while staying sane living with a neglectful, gnome-carving husband and being the best mother to her daughter Maria. The mother-daughter relationship is delightful and utterly believable - their mutual love sings from the pages.
All of this is woven through with literary references galore - Melville, Shakespeare, Nabokov; as well as lush descriptions of the food the lovers share in their secret woodland cottage: orange infused chocolate, bundt cake, pork ramen (Mayumi is part Japanese). The life of the library and the island both loom large and add richness and depth to Mayumi's comings and goings. Water, sand, woods, snow, heat, cold - everything is sensually and wonderfully described.
If I have niggles they are few, this was a book I would sneak away to read more of - always an excellent sign. The book did feel overly long to me - I would have welcomed more scenes between the lovers and less ruminating from Mayumi. It's a small gripe - the novel is stunning and the dénouement perfect. If you like your narrators wordy, nerdy, funny and lovable, and your sex scenes uncompromising, this is the book for you. You can buy it here.