THE FAVORITES by Mary Yukari Waters

Book Quote:

“Mrs. Kobayashi’s purchases now lay, shrink-wrapped and waiting, inside her tiny icebox. Some of them, like the sweet bean condiments and slices of teriyaki eel (for restoring strength to tired bodies), were already laid out on the table along with the usual breakfast staples: sweet omelettes, hot rice in a linen-draped wooden tub, julienned carrots and burdock roots cooked in mirin and soy sauce, a tall tin of dried seaweed, umeboshi with shiso leaves. A stack of lacquered bowls awaited the miso soup, which would be prepared at the last minute with skinny enoki mushrooms and tender greens. Mackerel steaks, sprinkled liberally with salt and broiling on the grill, filled the house with their savory aroma.”

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (OCT 12, 2009)

In her debut novel, The Favorites, gifted short story writer Mary Yukari Waters finds herself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Her story of a Japanese family once torn apart by war and now living with the sacrifices of the past examines a culture that protects its “fermented emotions” from public view even though the story itself is meant for Americans, a culture that “believe(s) it is unhealthy to keep feelings inside.” And so Ms. Waters carefully constructs a novel devoid of obvious emotion for a readership that craves it.

Divided into four parts, The Favorites begins when fifteen year old Sarah Rexford and her mother Yoko arrive in their native Kyoto for the summer. Unbeknownst to Sarah, the real story began decades earlier, in the years of World War II when her family faced impossible choices and consequences. Decades later, everything seems perfectly balanced, especially to Sarah who is an outsider in her own extended family. She is a “half” — half-Japanese and half-American — and thus does not belong fully to either culture. However, as she navigates the complex family relationships, sees her mother for the first time as popular and widely admired in Kyoto, becomes reacquainted with her young cousins, and gets settled into her own childhood culture, Sarah begins to understand some deep truths about her extended family and where she belongs in its hierarchy. Her mother Yoko’s rebellious choice to marry American John Rexford and to live with him in “a small logging town, hours away from any city” becomes more puzzling to Sarah as her mother’s status becomes apparent. The magnetism of Yoko’s Japanese personality forms the undercurrent to this story of all the women in the Kobayashi and Asaki households.

Especially in the first section, which is nearly half the novel, Waters seems to be writing for middle school and high school readers. The cultural details of Japanese life sometimes seem designed to instruct rather than provide richness to the story itself, and Sarah’s observations lack the insight of maturity. The result is a somewhat superficial and undisturbed pond of narrative that tells of the family dynamics rather than allowing them to unfold. Part of this derives from Sarah’s point-of-view – her age and outsider status distance her — although most comes from the hidden emotions of the characters, women who rarely show glimpses of what lies behind their public masks. Sarah is simply not adept enough to read between the facial lines.

Fortunately, Ms. Waters leaves Sarah’s point-of-view for that of the other women as they struggle to come to terms with a new family tragedy. As Waters writes, “There is something bracing, almost exhilarating, about a catastrophe. Like a typhoon, it sweeps away the small constraints of daily existence. It opens up the landscape to bold moves and rearrangements that would be unthinkable in normal times.” The open secret between the Kobayashi and Asaki households takes on new significance as the emotional ties among the women are tested. These sections are both subtle and deeply insightful, with none of the blunt force teenage viewpoint that Sarah provides. Instead, the story acquires a delightful delicacy despite the emotions raging underneath. The most poignant moment in the novel occurs when these shifting “rearrangements” become irreversible, and a grief hidden for decades is finally acknowledged, not in group hugs or tears or overt displays of emotion, but in small gestures that have significance. This leave-taking of an outsider’s view gives The Favorites its power.

The most memorable characters are not Sarah or Yoko or even the matriarchs of the households but rather the un-favorites: stoic Momoko Nishimura and the flaky, fanatical Tama Izumi. Because they act so differently from everyone else and are denied entry, either by choice or not, to the inner circle, they provide an interesting counterpoint to the matriarchs. Mrs. Kobayashi, Sarah’s grandmother, is the most complex of the women since the burden of the past and the developments that ensue weigh most heavily on her. Sarah is less likeable, particularly when she turns out to be a somewhat bratty, self-involved adult whose knowledge of her native culture and the Japanese side of her family is not much more evolved than it was when she was fifteen. She is more concerned with her place in the family than with the family members themselves.

Ms. Waters is an excellent writer, and her accessible prose and characterizations carry this story forward with ease. Although it reads more like an extended short story than a complex novel, the way it comes together in the end, by bringing together the two characters who need each other most, offers the full satisfaction of a story well-told.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (June 2, 2009)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AMAZON PAGE: The Favorites
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Mary Yukari Waters
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More Half-Half stories:

Country of Origin by Don Lee

Exit A by Anthony Swofford

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vasanji

More set in Japan:

Embracing Family by Nobuo Kojima

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothromb


October 12, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Japan, Reading Guide, World Lit

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