Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

“I am a quiet lady, but my imagination is wild and busy.” Isobelle Ouzman

Livia and TsengFrom one island to another, having left the four holidaymakers from elsewhere on Little Lost Island in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August, I find a not so little, but lost islander in Mayumi, a 41-year-old librarian and resident of another New England island.

With a demanding 4-year-old daughter who has claimed a place in the marital bed, an emotionally and physically distant husband and finding solace between the pages of the books she reads, Mayumi’s life seems to lack something she isn’t aware of, until someone arrives at the library counter to ignite it.

She develops a fixation on a 17-year-old boy, seducing him and slotting him timetable-like in her already routine, controlled life, as if forbidden love is just another aspect of a carefully planned existence, something that be contained.

In addition, she can’t help but allow a friendship to develop with the boy’s mother, her equal desire for friendship and understanding crossing neurotic wires that seem destined to create an emotional explosion.

Publisher, Europa Editions describe the book as:

“With echoes of  The Giant’s House and shot through with literary references, the debut novel by Asian-American poet Jennifer Tseng is a book that leaves a lasting impression.”

and Kirkus Reviews:

Tseng explores time and place, isolation and connection, and veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid.”

while the author herself said:

“I love the premise of someone in a mundane setting, then a stranger walks in, and everything changes.”

Jennifer Tseng

Jennifer Tseng

It was a strange read for me and while many authors succeed in bringing the reader inside a perspective that might be counter-intuitive to their own instinct, it felt as though I remained on the outside of this narrative, never able to crossover into the world Muyumi inhabits, through her narcissistic obsession.

I haven’t read The Giant’s House, although reading the blurb of it I can see why comparisons might be made.

orhan-pamuk-the-museum-of-innocenceThe only reading experience I can compare this too is Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which is a very long treatise on the experience of obsession, it is so long that you can’t help but experience the tedium of an unrelenting obsession.

Tseng’s exploration is unique by virtue of it being a female obsession, confusing the roles of mother, lover, friend and wife.

It is a reminder that in the quietest of environments, the imagination is actively at work and you never know when inspiration or obsession might alight.

I leave you with a quote from the book, where Mayumi is feeling frustrated by the pending departure of the young man for a couple of weeks over the summer:

“You know I didn’t come here to mix with your sort. If anything I came here to escape such excitements.”

What had in it the seed of a compliment came off sounding like a snub. He drew back slightly as if I had just hit him.

“What I meant to say,” I persisted, determined to salvage the moment and bolster his confidence, “is that this is a highly unusual circumstance. I’ve lead a very sheltered life, sheltered from good as much as from bad. I’ve minded my own business. I never sought thrills. I’ve been content to avoid the company of youth and beauty. Before you, I had no desire.”

“With all due respect, May, I find it hard to believe,” he finished in iambic pentameter, “that a woman with your brain and your appetite came halfway across the world in search of nothing.”

He was well-mannered yet restless; his eyes studied me as though I were a page in a book. I had the sense of being one among many, of being read intensely but fleetingly by a reader who would soon turn the page.

In addition to being a poet and fiction writer, the author Jennifer Tseng is a librarian on Martha’s Vineyard, a New England island.

Pumpkin Island Maine

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

Enchanted August, A Novel by Brenda Bowen

Enchanted AugustNot only are Elizabeth von Arnim’s works experiencing a surge in popularity, with The Enchanted April being republished as a Penguin Classic this month, but her 90-year-old novel has spawned a work of fan fiction in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August.

Bowen takes four same named characters and weaves a contemporary 21st century tale set on an island in Maine. A huge fan of first the movie and then the book, Bowen transposes von Arnim’s idea into the modern world and reinvents its magic.

Two mothers Lottie and Rose see the same advertisement posted on the noticeboard of the over-zealous Brooklyn preschool their children attend:

Hopewell Cottage

Little Lost Island, Maine.

Old, pretty cottage

to rent on a small island

Springwater, blueberries, sea glass.

August.

They dCIMG7226ecide to rent it and find two others to join them to reduce the cost, Caroline Dester, a celebrity who wishes to hide from the world following a recent public humiliation and Beverly Fisher, the somewhat grumpy and initially reclusive, older character, grieving after a heartbreaking loss and seeking solitude in the company of strangers.

Lottie and Rose reflect on their unhappy marriages; distance and absence incline them towards remembering better days in the early years and in a surge of optimism brought on by the island ambiance, Lottie invites her husband without consulting the others, while Rose procrastinates at Lottie’s suggestion that she do the same.

These four unlikely holidaymakers attempt to navigate living together for one month and discover an ironic comfort and lack of inhibition brought about in the company of strangers. Wounds begin to heal, the island changes their routine and shifts their perspectives as they discover the life-changing effect of a month-long summer holiday on a small island where there is little to do but relax and unwind.

Enchanted August is a pleasant read, even when aware of the plot as it unfolds; discovering how Bowen chooses to represent her characters and their various dilemmas is part of the joy in reading it.

lobsterbake

Traditional Maine Lobster Bake

It is very much an American version with its characters and setting just as von Arnim’s is essentially English even if set in Italy. One of the intriguing local aspects was the age-old lobster bake, something of a communal island lobster, clam, vegetable, seaweed, open fire culinary tradition that brings everyone together.

The island didn’t succeed in invoking quite the same charm and magic as Portofino did for me in the orignal classic, an idyll almost impossible to replicate, however it perhaps offers for many, a more realistic or attainable allure, the idea that one doesn’t have to travel so far to find a simple magic that can transform perspectives and lives.

An entertaining summer read, evocative of the charm, simplicity and transformative powers of a small island holiday.

Further Reading

Review of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Review of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Note: This book is an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.