I have an acute case of Writer Envy. I felt it coming on earlier this month, as I sat in a surprisingly comfortable folding chair at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to hear author Jennifer Tseng read from her debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (published by the always fabulous Europa Editions).
Despite my exhaustion from traveling all day and sleeping little the night before, I found myself leaning forward as she spoke. I couldn’t help it. Her sentences were like Sirens–poetic pathogens made up of words and phrases that lured, serenaded and hummed; that I wanted to get closer to; that wonderfully infected me with pure, unadulterated jealousy: How come I’ve never written anything as gorgeous and compelling as that? I want to! I want to now!
She started the reading at Chapter 1:
It began at the library. While the young man waited quietly to be helped, I stood neatly in thrall to the world outside the window. Momijigari was ending; leaves were falling in drifts like snow. Blackcaps were eating the trees, striking the bark with their beaks then rapidly chewing it, in that annual burlesque of sheer appetite I always found vulgar. When I turned, he cleared his throat and asked for a library card. He explained with darting, downcast eyes that although he’d been coming to the library with his mother since he was a child, he’d never had his own card. There was something in his manner–softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face–this is particular to a son close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in–his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil–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.
Like Jennifer, protagonist Mayumi is a 40-something-year-old librarian who lives on a small island remarkably like Martha’s Vineyard. As Kirkus described in its review, Mayumi is also a woman “emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age [who] finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old.”
It’s a complicated love story that, as it unfolds, Mayumi can’t help but compare to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. She, after all, is not just a librarian, but a voracious reader and re-reader. Yet Mayumi is no Humbert Humbert. And the relationship Mayumi and the never-named boy develop is nothing if not beautiful, despite the social mores she unapologetically sets aside:
I saw within myself a cup marked complacency and a cup marked disappointment, the contents of both spilling over. I saw that I had been staring impassively for years at the spectacle of my own pain overflowing, as if at a hideous waterfall. Now I turned my gaze toward the young man. … I saw that there was also within me an empty cup marked pleasure and I resolved at once to fill. I refused to be thwarted.
Who of us who’ve reached middle age haven’t felt that kind of longing for fulfillment of desire, whether that desire be for love, sex, the creation of art, the exploration of new places or so many other things? All of us have dreams and desires that are more than just wants. The brave, unconventional and unexpectedly erotic Mayumi shows that while taking risks and going after fulfillment has the potential to end in despair, it can also lead unimaginable happiness, unexpected friendships and unregrettable moments.
Someone said Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness “veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid,” and it’s so true. No one who reads Maymui will be surprised to learn Jennifer is also a poet. Each sentence sings.
A few days after that Bunch of Grapes event, I had the pleasure of spending part of an afternoon with Jennifer. Despite the rain, we sat on the back porch of the West Tisbury Library as I recorded an interview with her for the Literary New England Radio Show. That conversation will air at 8 pm Monday, July 6. We’ll also give away copies of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness on that show, so don’t miss tuning in.
If you you’re going to be in Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, you can meet Jennifer in person at 6 pm Saturday, June 27, at the West Tisbury Library. As the flier below shows, the event will feature bubbles, cake, book talk, book signing, Mayumi swag and more.
In the meantime, no matter where you are, pick up a copy of Mayumi. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be swimming in your own Sea of Happiness. Even for writers susceptible to contracting Writer Envy, this ravishing novel is absolutely worth the risk.
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton