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.

La Seduction – how the French play the game of life

Séduire * plaire à quelqu’un et obtenir amour ou faveurs en usant de son charme * conquérir l’admiration, l’estime, la confiance * captiver, charmer *attirer de façon irrésistible en parlant d’une chose

Suggested by a local book club and interested in an outsider’s perception of life in France, I find myself in the company of Elaine Sciolino, Paris bureau chief of the New York Times between the pages of her alluring book.

Inspired by a lecture she gave at the NY public library in 2008 entitled ‘Séduction à la française’ the author explained how seduction was key to understanding France and the French, positing that one of the reasons for President Sarkozy’s low ratings in the popularity polls post-election was because he had not mastered these rules. He may not play by the rules, but he did find his counter balance when he married Carla Bruni, who Scioloni describes as:

a modern-day woman with the manners of an eighteenth-century courtesan, skilled in the art of movement and the rituals of conversation.

Intriguing indeed and what fun the author must have had flirting flitting around the micro empires of Parisian style, beauty, cuisine, politics and culture, meeting presidents, diplomats, artists, writers, chefs, businessmen, merchants, farmers, philosophers, journalists, fashion designers, perfumers and museum curators.

The book describes a world and a manner of being I know little about, despite living within its midst these past six or so years; but Paris, like many large cities is not necessarily typical of the rest and after listening to others discuss this book, opinion is indeed varied, some suggesting ‘la seduction’ old fashioned, a prerogative of certain social classes, political circles or even pure fantasy. I tend to think there are sufficient anecdotes to say oui to all of those suggestions.

What is certain is that cultural perceptions are different even when values may be similar. While a certain look ‘le regard’ from a man is welcomed as a complement in France, it might receive a verbal legal threat in America. In France, there is greater tolerance and less testing the waters of behaviour that in the US might be construed as sexual harassment.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin, Paris, 16ème - Photo Lycée Condorcet

An interesting example of how long things have been so, was observed ( and well portrayed in the excellent HBO series ‘John Adams’) in the conduct and perceptions of Benjamin Franklin (first Ambassador to France) and John Adams (the second American president), Franklin understood it impolite to discuss business at dinner, immersing himself in the peculiarities of French culture while pursuing his goal; Adams however, saw Franklin’s indulgences and game playing as a complete waste of time, his disapproving manner causing the French to frown and exclude him completely. When Franklin died, France mourned him like a hero; people thought so highly of him, some believed he had been a president.

One of the paradoxes is the attitude towards privacy. Behaviours complicit in la seduction are accepted, but it is frowned upon to indulge in more than fanciful rumour; the media keep their distance from any story that verges on incriminating a person for something considered to be private or slanderous. This was highlighted recently when Sarkozy whispered an insult in the ear of President Obama about another Head of State and although the comment was overhead and reported widely by English and American media, it was not reported until a week later by the French press and even then it was kept very low profile. Not one French person I asked knew about the story. The sanctity of the right to privacy is paramount.

The chapters on gastronomy and concocting perfumes I particularly enjoyed, time spent with a connoisseur passionate about their work is pure joy and since mixing the essences of plants and flowers is one of my own passions, I was happily lost in these chapters imagining the sweet mix of aromas and the taste of Guy Savoy’s mother’s home cooking. See him work his magic here and experience his culinary art of seduction.

I recall reading ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong’ by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, a Canadian attempt to understanding France and the French and their effort to explain the root of the differences. One of the analogies they made that has stayed with me was to suggest that visitors should expect a culture and a people as dissimilar to themselves as they might assume when visiting Japan or China. All are ancient civilisations and have many traits, laws, beliefs, habits, attitudes and ways of doing things that go back generations, centuries.

Our institutions originate in the decadence of ancient Rome. We are an old people. The mistresses of monarchs, from Louis XIV to Napolean III … are part of our history. – Patrick Devedjian, Paris

Rather than debate whether this is an accurate portrayal or not, I see it as another contribution to an attempted unveiling of what lies within an ancient culture and how that influences what we encounter in our modern day interactions and visitations in this intriguing country and among her patriotic people. It remains a slow opening mystery to me, so I just continue to listen, observe, interact, read and learn.