A sense of longing suffuses Tseng’s sexy, sad debut novel about a 41-year-old librarian who embarks on an affair with a shy, handsome high school student.
Readers of literary fiction might be turned off by the premise of award-winning poet Tseng’s (Red Flower, White Flower, 2013, etc.) debut novel, which sounds suspiciously like a bodice-ripper: Mayumi, a librarian living on an island off the New England coast that empties in the offseason—emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age—finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old just leaving the safe harbor of his boyhood. Aware of the dangers and abashed at the Nabokov-ian overtones, Mayumi nevertheless handily introduces the young man, whom she never names, to the pleasures of sex and literature. He buoys her with his youth and beauty, saving her from sinking deeper into isolation. And then there’s the young man’s mother, to whom Mayumi also finds herself drawn and with whom she forges a relationship. The slow, inevitable tectonic intersection of these three lives leads, ultimately, to calamity, though not in the way you might predict. Yet, in other regards, the interconnection also holds the key to their survival, providing pockets of pure joy that keep them afloat amid despair. So, sure, this does at times read like a romance with particular middle-aged–mom appeal; its love scenes don’t lack for erotic description and detail, and Mayumi’s obsessive admiration for the young man swings between coolly perceptive and discomfitingly overheated. But the precision and poetry of Tseng’s writing keep the book from meandering too far in that direction, and the emotional and physical landscapes she conjures—the snow-covered vistas, cozy hidden cottages, and jewellike spring-fed ponds—make it worth the visit.
Tseng explores time and place, isolation and connection, and veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid.