My TOB reading continues with Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd. It’s a long book, maybe the longest on the list this year, and I think it could have done with some trimming, but I mostly liked it.
The book is in two parts, both narrated by a writer named Natsuko and both addressing the meaning and experience of womanhood. In the first part, Natsuko, who lives in Tokyo, is playing host to her sister, Makiko, and 12-year-old niece, Midoriko. Makiko, a hostess in a bar in Osaka, has come to Tokyo to look into getting breast implants, and so there’s a lot of talk in this part of the book about women’s bodies and their feelings about their bodies. As Makiko expresses discontent with the shape and color of her nipples, all altered by childbirth, Midoriko, who has recently stopped speaking, writes in her journal about her own relationship with her body at this difficult age. It’s all as awkward as you might imagine. Natsuko muses over her life as well, but these sections feel like distractions from Midoriko and Makiko.
The second part, set years later, focuses more on Natsuko. At this point, she’s published a book and is working on her next one. And she’s trying to make a decision about whether to have a child. Natsuko is asexual, and so she’s researching methods of artificial insemination, which is possible but not easily available for single women in Japan. Her questions put her in the orbit of adult children of sperm donors, which gets her thinking about the ethics of having a child with a unknown or uninvolved father — or even of having a child at all. Her friends all have their own views about motherhood, which they share, mostly without knowing what Natsuko is considering.
The two sections of the book are barely connected. It feels almost like two books. The characters and the emphasis on womanhood is the same, but even the style is different. The first part has two voices and meanders quite a lot. The second offers other voices through Natsuko’s conversations with friends, but it feels much more like Natsuko’s own story. Her friends and colleagues are there to illuminate her decision making.
Rebecca noted in her review that the second (and longer) part of the book was a disappointment after the first. I had the opposite experience. Although I could appreciate what Kawakami was doing in the first half, the second held my interest much more. I think what I liked was getting inside the head of someone having to make such a difficult choice and doing it entirely on her own. It’s not as if everything she does is about potential motherhood — she also has a lot to think about involving her career — but it’s always there, her secret obsession, and every encounter seems to feel her thinking. I liked the interiority of it, I think. It felt very true to me.
Still, it is longer than it needed to be, so it’s not at the top of my TOB list, and I’ll be surprised to see it go far because I think the bifurcated nature of makes it feel uneven in a way that either half on its own would not.
My next TOB book will be Shuggie Bain, which I just was able to get from the library. I’m still on the very long waitlist for Memorial and Leave the World Behind. And the library doesn’t have Telephone at all, so that may be as far as I get with TOB reading, although the digital queues sometimes surprise me. So we’ll see.