In Tokyo, a French teacher studying Japanese meets a Japanese man studying French, a relationship that at first delights them both but ultimately ends in separation.
In an effort to learn Japanese, the narrator (named “Amélie Nothomb”) figures the best strategy would be to give private French lessons. The only one who responds to her ad on the supermarket bulletin board is Rinri, a shy and self-contained young man whose French is atrocious but whose motivation is strong. They soon develop a bicultural force field of mutual attraction. While the presence of Americans is muted in the novel, the narrator skewers them each time they appear. Amy from Portland, for example, whines continually, and at a dinner party, “no matter what she had in her mouth, she looked as if she were chewing gum.” The narrator is enamored with Tokyo and with all things Japanese, including Rinri, who becomes a tender lover yet remains a mysterious presence. Much of the novel consists of conversations between Amélie and Rinri, the early ones awkward and self-conscious, the later ones amusing and occasionally profound. Trying to get some perspective on the relationship, which has lured her more deeply into intimacy than she feels comfortable with, Amélie comments: “Our life as a couple resembled the water-filled mattress we slept on: outmoded, uncomfortable, and funny. Our bond consisted in sharing a moving sense of malaise.” In one exhilarating passage Rinri invites Amélie to climb Mount Fuji with him, a physical act with deep symbolic significance to the Japanese because you can’t be “truly Japanese” until you’ve made the ascent. Amélie finds the experience so intoxicating that she far outstrips Rinri, who comes puffing up hours after Amélie has arrived, an episode that provides insight into Amélie’s later refusal to give up her independence.
Nothomb succeeds in giving us an alternative but still charming vision of romantic love.