Two teenaged cousins spend a final summer in their seaside hometown, in the gentle, reflective latest from Yoshimoto (Asleep, 2000, etc.).
Because Maria’s father was unable to get a divorce, she and her mother lived throughout her childhood at the Yamamoto Inn, run by Maria’s aunt and uncle, seeing Dad only on weekends. This wasn’t easy, especially since life there was dominated by Maria’s sharp-tongued cousin Tsugumi, seriously ill since birth and determined to take it out on everyone around her. But the cousins have been close ever since Tsugumi faked a ghostly letter from Maria’s beloved and recently deceased grandfather—a peculiar incident that sets the tone for their relationship: Tsugumi is outrageous (by Japanese standards, anyway; Americans may find her merely crotchety); Maria values her blunt honesty and understands the pain that fuels her anger. Looking back as an adult, Maria mingles memories of their childhood with an account of their last summer together, just after Maria’s parents finally married and the family moved to Tokyo, and just before the Yamamotos sold the inn to start a European-style pension in the mountains. Yoshimoto’s trademark blend of slangy prose and traditional Japanese affinity for nature is here again, though typical of her fresh outlook is a lovely scene when the girls walk over a mountain at night to dispel their sorrow over the final broadcast of a favorite TV show. Tsugumi’s gruff charm and deep loneliness are well drawn, as is the quiet empathy of the young man she falls in love with. But the standout here is Maria: determinedly optimistic like her mother, yet affectionate toward by her father’s nervous, loving anxieties, she grows into a happy maturity with the knowledge that loss is an inevitable part of growing up. The slightly odd ending, which casually thwarts expectations of a tragic denouement for Tsugumi, reminds us that this author never settles for the expected.
Lyrical, accessible, enchanting: Yoshimoto deserves her international popularity.