Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
review by Maia Morgan
One of the things I loved about summer as a kid was lying for hours on the beach or on the worn floral couch in our rented house on Martha’s Vineyard, immersed in a book. The pleasure of reading was irrevocably bound with the abundance of summer itself – the sky and sea, timbre of the surf, chittering of sandpipers, smell of salt and rose hips. This correlation of the joys of reading with other sensual pleasures – the natural world, eating, physical intimacy – suffuses Jennifer Tseng’s debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, a book that somehow manages to feel at once voluptuous and spare.
Mayumi is a forty-something librarian on an unidentified island on the northern Atlantic seaboard. She speaks of herself as a prim, perimenopausal woman, favoring comfortable shoes and flannel nightgown. She is unfulfilled if not unhappy in her marriage and relies primarily on her four-year-old daughter for physical and emotional intimacy. She shocks herself when she falls for a young library patron, who, it turns out, is only seventeen, a high school senior. Flattered when the boy returns her interest, Mayumi can’t help herself from diving headlong into an ill-advised love affair. To complicate matters further, Mayumi becomes increasingly obsessed with the boy’s mother, a single parent and owner of a luxury shop, to whom Mayumi offers book recommendations.
Written from the point of view of its librarian protagonist (Mayumi pronounces herself “doubly afloat, in an island library, surrounded by water, surrounded by books”), Mayumiand the Sea of Happiness teems with literary allusions. It’s a book full of other books. The boy reads The Odyssey, his mother Crime and Punishment. Mayumi turns often to literature in describing her love affair. She casts herself as a Humbert Humbert, extolling her young lover in Nabokovian terms: “My pubescent professor, my juvenile reader, my paternal, patronal joy!” Later, she turns the tables, comparing herself to the nameless girl, seduced and abandoned, in Duras’ The Lover, a book the boy brings her as a gift. When he reads Mayumi a passage from Moby Dick in bed in the afterglow of sex, it’s not one depicting the lustful chase of predator after prey or Ahab’s madness and obsession. Instead, it’s a watery lullaby of a scene of pregnant and nursing whales, after which Mayumi startles him by revealing she still breastfeeds her daughter. In fact, Mayumi is as much about mothering as it is about sexual passion. Mayumi describes both child and lover with the same bemused wonder, the same deep ache. There are overlapping triangles: Mayumi, her daughter, the boy; the boy, Mayumi, his mother.
Mayumi moves breathlessly through the seasons of a year, from summer to summer. The island empties and then fills again as the story races toward its conclusion. Mayumi is about time, too: the rhythms of a year, the years that separate one generation from another and separate us from our younger selves and our selves yet to be. One of the pleasures of reading is the way a book is temporal. We absorb it over the course of days or weeks, infusing that time with its language, its characters and story. Often, revisiting a book is revisiting that era of our lives. Consummate reader Mayumi’s personal history is profusely tangled with characters, passages, stories. The lush, unsettling Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness will leave its traces on readers as well.
Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng is published by Europa Editions this month.
Maia Morgan's writing has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and published in Glamour, Creative Nonfiction, The Chattahoochee Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and on themanifeststation.net. She is a past winner of Glamour magazine’s “Real-Life Essay Contest” and finalist for Fourth Genre’s Steinberg Essay Prize.