It’s rare for my attention to linger on the cover of a book I’m about to read, but it certainly did when I picked up Jennifer Tseng’s poetic, richly imagined début novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. The cover features an overhead shot of a pale woman in a fuschia dress lying, arms outstretched, on a rippling blue-green sea. Though this might be the sea of happiness, the image suggests a more complicated truth. Underlying the tranquility and sensuality of the scene is a sense of isolation, even peril—seemingly contradictory threads that this novel, like its cover, weaves together deftly and powerfully.
The Mayumi of the title is a forty-something librarian who inhabits a tourist-attracting island off the coast of New England (think Martha’s Vineyard) with her beloved five-year-old daughter and her not-so-beloved husband. Though kind and decent, he no longer interests Mayumi erotically or otherwise. They share little more than affection for their daughter and a ramshackle house, where they sleep in separate beds.
In the first pages of the novel a new presence in Mayumi’s life sparks desire and also alarm: a handsome young man who approaches her at work to ask for a library card. In retrospect, Mayumi reflects, “I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.”
But Mayumi doesn’t retreat. Her obsession with the young man builds, and with time her attention to him—as he checks out or returns movies and books—is subtly reciprocated. When, eventually, she suggests a meeting at a local waterfall in the woods, he agrees. That meeting rapidly escalates to a regular assignation in a seemingly abandoned, fairy-tale-like cottage nearby.
To this book’s great credit, the story of the affair doesn’t unreel in any predictable ways. Though as erotically charged as you might expect, this story seems to be as much about isolation and what we do—or don’t do—to overcome it as it is about fulfilling desires. At one telling juncture in the story, Mayumi observes:
The novel also overturns some troubling conventions of many traditional May-December romances (the ones in which May equals a young woman and December equals a middle-aged man). The relationship between Mayumi and the young man (who is never named) is not about possession or objectification; quite the contrary. In one especially moving passage of the novel, Mayumi thinks:
Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the way in which the characters, especially Mayumi, regard books and reading not only as enjoyable pastimes but as ways to build and cement relationships, platonic or otherwise. Through discussions and recommendations of books, Mayumi learns more about the young man and also forms a friendship with his mother (a whole other surprising yet retrospectively convincing angle to the novel).
Toward the end of the novel Mayumi reflects, in an exceptionally beautiful passage, on the importance of books and reading to her relationship with the young man:
To conclude, I’m going to break a bit with tradition and let characters from Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness fill in the “Would My Pick Be Your Pick?” listing below—usually, my way of helping readers figure out if a book I’m recommending is aligned with their tastes. (I myself haven’t read any of Elena Ferrante’s books, but based on Mayumi’s recommendation, I’m very much looking forward to them.)
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ The Lost Daughter and The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, as well as Lolita (!) (All of these books were recommended by Mayumi to the young man’s mother.)
▪ Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick (the young man’s choice for himself) and J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé—With Love and Squalor and Other Stories (the young man’s gift to Mayumi)
▪ The Lover by Marguerite Duras (contemplated, at various points, by Mayumi)