MAYUMI AND THE SEA OF HAPPINESS by Jennifer Tseng

This August will mark my fourth year of reviewing books. The journey has impacted my writing life in so many ways, I feel like Robert Redford in his last scene with Bearclaw in Jeremiah Johnson.

Bearclaw: You come far Pilgrim.

Jeremiah: Feels like Far.

In the beginning I wrote purely about my love for the story. The further I dug into my own manuscript, the more I evaluated the books I read based on the elements of storytelling I was wrestling with at the time. Over the last six months, I’ve wondered if I would ever be able to read a novel without thinking like a writer. Would I ever again be able to read for the pure fun of getting lost in another world, without a care in the world—other than my care and concern for the protagonist? The answer is, YES. Thanks to Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness I’ve come home to my love of reading.

So what is it about Tseng’s debut novel that reawakened the pure Reader in me? At first I believed it was a result of Tseng’s roots in poetry. Her first book of poems The Man with My Face won the 2006 PEN American Center Open Book Award. Her second book Red Flower, White Flower won the 2013 Marick Press Poetry Prize. There is a satin cadence in her writing that reels us in with a dose of surprise that positions us on the edge of danger.

I was a librarian after all, near-sighted, spectacled, sitting at a desk, legs crossed, mind adrift, a woman who, at any given moment, would have rather been reading.

My reawakening may have started with Tseng’s mastery of words, but the reason she blew the analytical writer out of my head is the strength of her uncommon tale and a protagonist who, in spite of her inappropriate behavior, felt like a part of me.

Forty-one years old, discontented wife and dutiful mother, Mayumi is a librarian on an island off the coast of New England. Her work feeds her passion for reading […] but it does little to remedy the dulness of her daily routine. […] until the day she issues a library card to a shy seventeen-year-old boy…

I don’t know whether my connection to Mayumi’s discontentment is a natural side-effect to the responsibility of motherhood, or if my restlessness is an understandable off-shoot of an artistic spirit who inadvertently ended up steering the family ship. The answer probably lies somewhere in-between, or maybe it’s something else. What matters more is that I’m asking the question, wondering, probing and observing more careful the actions of myself and others. This is why we read.

What I appreciated most was Tseng’s patience in delivering the story. The first third of Mayumi’s journey is a wrestling match with her conscience.

How does one do something inappropriate in as appropriate a manner as possible?

The tug between guilt and desire creates an ever-present tension we cannot turn away from because we’ve been there. Perhaps not because of lust, but who hasn’t wanted to do something they ultimately knew was wrong. As Mayumi’s obsession with her seventeen-year old grows, so does our obsession to understand how she will deal with this crisis. The mind-loops of justification, rationalization and her attempts to prevent this inevitable act are grounded and sane because Mayumi is a sane human being. She doesn’t live on the edge of psychosis, or the border of mental illness. She’s simply a woman who wants something society has told her is wrong. She needs to figure out how to deal with it, and because she could be a librarian in our own town, we root for her to come to her senses, while being swept up in her logic to commit the crime she may very well go to jail for.

Another powerful element of Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness that makes this debut novel impossible to put down is the inevitability of Mayumi’s transgression. By the time we reach the consummation of the affair we, too, have accepted there is no way for her to resist. Having written that statement, a part of me is shocked that I’ve done so. How can I admit that there was no way for her to back away? This alone, is a testament to how thoroughly Jennifer Tseng has delivered the complexity of Mayumi’s inner turmoil.

Alone with my secret, I indicted and rehabilitated, analyzed and haggled. I accused myself of rape, molestation, and willful negligence. Alternatingly, I defended my right to feel pleasure and love, my right to refuse loneliness.

But perhaps the most beautiful part of the telling of the tale is how empty the pages are of sex. Mayumi’s relationship with her lover is absolutely a relationship. Our interactions cause us to grow, and Mayumi’s affair might, very well, be considered her MFA in self-awareness and life. Her time with the boy is filled with questions, musings and wonderment at how her life has unfolded, while containing many of the struggles of conscience she wrestled with in the first third of the book. The affair is an enormous event in her life, but in the end it is only one aspect of her life. She is a wife, a mother, a librarian, a woman and all of these aspects of her personality are given a thorough reexamination because of this one event.

Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness is an exquisitely told tale of inappropriate behavior that takes our breath away, while giving us pause to examine the line we walk, perhaps everyday, between guilt and desire.