Breasts and Eggs

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.

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8 Responses to Breasts and Eggs

  1. Oh please, Teresa, what does this mean? “My TOB reading” – I don’t see it on any of the recent pages and I’m not familiar with it as an acronym. . ??? I’ve read Shuggie Bain and although it’s grim it’s not “grim.”

  2. “Longer than it needed to be” is truly my enemy these days — I’ve become so impatient with books that run long. I don’t know why! I read incredibly long fanfics with delight, and when a book really captures me I’m willing to stick around for a longer length, but yeah, a lot of the time now I’ll be like “ugh where is ur editor bro” and flounce. :P

    • Teresa says:

      I’m surprised that I stuck with this, but I think it helped that I liked the second half better than the first. It seems like if it’s more than 350 pages, it needs to be extra good.

  3. Ruthiella says:

    Neither Telephone nor The Down Days were available in my two library systems, so I ended up purchasing them. On the plus side, there is no pressure to read fast so I can return them on time!

    I am reading Breast and Eggs now as an ebook and at 60% am finding it to be pretty dull. Yes, there are interesting observations in there about being a woman but it is too meandering and descriptive for my reading tastes.

    • Teresa says:

      I told myself at the beginning of TOB this year that I would make no special effort (i.e., buying books) to be a completist, but I may end up giving in.
      These days, I seem to be wanting more story than this book offered, but for some reason, it pulled me in anyway. But it’s up against my beloved Piranesi in round 1, so I’m rooting hard against it!

      • Ruthiella says:

        I seriously doubt it will happen, but I would love Piranesi to take the Rooster. It would be a nice upset. But I am afraid it is to “genre” to make it. I am also really rooting for Luster, the best book of the 18, IMO despite its rough patches. Though I still have to finish The Down Days.

      • Teresa says:

        I don’t think Piranesi has a chance either. It seems to either work with readers or really, really not work. And the chances of all the judges it meets being in the former category is slim. So my more realistic self is rooting for Transcendent Kingdom or The Vanishing Half.
        Luster, for some reason, didn’t work for me as well as it did for a lot of people, but I think it has a chance to do well.

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