A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel
Meet Nao (pronounced “Now”):
- A suicidal Japanese teenager who lives with her mom and suicidal father;
- The victim of pretty severe and grotesque bullying;
- Caught between two cultures (feels like an American, because she grew up in Sunnyvale, CA . . . but moved back to Tokyo with her family after the dot-com bubble burst and her dad lost his job);
- Loves her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Old Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun.
- Left NYC to live in a remote island town in British Columbia;
- Has a husband, Oliver, and a cat, Schrödinger (nicknamed “Pesto”);
- An author (this book’s author, in fact), working on her memoir.
The book is about the intersection of Nao’s and Ruth’s lives. One day, Ruth is walking along the beach and finds a big Ziploc bag. In the Ziploc, she discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox that contains:
- A copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu;
- A bundle of letters written in French;
- A diary written in old-fashioned Kanji; and
- An old watch.
Upon further inspection, Ruth realizes that the copy of À la recherche du temps perdu is actually Nao’s diary. The pages of the book were removed and replaced with blank pages that have been covered in girly, purple handwriting.
As she reads, Ruth learns that Nao wrote the diary sitting in a French maid café in Tokyo. French maid cafés are one of Japan’s many odd cultural phenomena (like cuddle clubs and ear-cleaning salons). Waitresses dress up like French maids and treat their customers like “masters.” In some cafés, additional services are offered (from personal grooming to dates). Here’s a glimpse:
Nao has dropped out of school and is writing the diary because she wants to record the story of Old Jiko’s life before she dies. But before she gets to Old Jiko’s life, Nao delves into her own life and struggles.
The book jumps between Nao’s perspective (in first person, as told through her diary entries) and Ruth’s perspective (in third person, as told by an omniscient narrator). Ruth decides to read Nao’s diary at the pace she imagines Nao wrote it. And, as Ruth gets further into Nao’s story, she wants to learn more about Nao now–to find out whether she is still alive (Did she commit suicide? Did she die in the tsunami?) and how and why her diary and the other documents ended up washing ashore in B.C. But Ruth’s searches for present-day Nao come up empty.
Rating: 2.5/5 🌊
Nao’s story is engaging. It is tragic and tough to read at times, but funny and quirky at others. There is a lot of great stuff about Japanese culture (from hentai to Buddhism). Her diary entries are peppered with footnotes (ostensibly added by Ruth during her reading of the diary), which translate Japanese phrases and explain cultural phenomena. Normally, I despise footnotes (see my diatribe here), but these did not detract from the story and actually provided some interesting color. If the whole book had been Nao’s diary entries, it would have been infinitely better.
Ruth’s story, on the other hand, is ridiculously boring. And, to make matters worse, it devolves into quantum-physics silliness (pages in the diary appearing and reappearing, dreams becoming reality, etc.). Blech.
I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. It slogs along very slowly. When I began reading, I thought it would be great, but I was never able to get into it. Every time I got engrossed by Nao’s story, it would be interrupted by a new boring bit about Ruth that threw off the pacing and made me care a little bit less.
Who should read it: Mom (i.e., people who would enjoy reading Nao’s story, and who will appreciate—rather than be annoyed by—the alternate-lives mumbo-jumbo that Ruth brings to the table).