In this beautifully restrained novel, love is intense but in limited supply.
The FavoritesPublisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 288 pages
Author: Mary Yukari Waters
Publication date: 2009-06
Mary Yukari Waters' novel The Favorites brings to mind the Japanese notion of ma, which refers to negative space -- the gap between objects, the silence between events. In the book's maze of family secrets, what is left unsaid often weighs more heavily than what is spoken.
During a summer visit to her family in Kyoto, 14-year-old Sarah -- considered "a half" in Japan because she has an American father and a Japanese mother -- slowly sheds her American straightforwardness, adopting the codes of conduct necessary to maneuver her way from the family's margins to its epicenter, where her mother, Yoko, and her grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi, are the sole occupants. Around these two women, whose "chemistry was so bright, it seemed to suck the air out of the room," the others disappear, like chorus girls backing the stars of a grand performance.
What bonds the two women is an untarnished love left over from before the war -- before Mrs. Kobayashi lost her beloved husband, Shohei, and was coerced by his childless sister, Mrs. Asaki, not only to marry Shohei's brother but to hand over one of her two daughters. "War had created an opportunity," Waters writes. "And Mrs. Asaki had grabbed it, with a cunning aggression that surprised even herself." What follows, over the ensuing decades, is a complicated dance of pretense, where everyone, including the bartered daughter, Masako (who knows full well who her real mother is), feigns harmony.
This pretense is part of keeping the "outside face", one mastered by Sarah's "ethereal" aunt Masako, a woman with a penchant for pastel clothes and Peter Pan collars. But as Sarah soon learns, amiability is a mask that must be dropped at critical times.
"A well-bred woman," she is told, "thinks several steps ahead," as in a game of chess. She must distinguish uchi from soto -- her inner circle (people she can trust absolutely) from her outer circle (everyone else). Sarah joins the inner circle of her mother and grandmother one afternoon by hiding a box of expensive sweets from her aunt, who "had never had any such fuss made over her." Thus she crosses an "invisible line of allegiance," understanding that happiness comes "at the cost of someone else."
Waters expertly depicts the tension between her characters' inner lives and their calibrated existence within their surroundings, where everything -- even chaos -- is orchestrated: bowls are "artfully mismatched", fences are "deliberately rustic", formal tea is served in "bowls with deceptively rustic 'flaws’". But like the unforeseen checkmate that knocks the favored king off the board, plot complications eventually reconfigure all the players' positions, forcing them to re-evaluate themselves and each other.
What remains constant are memories, which first visit Sarah through the sounds, sights and smells of Kyoto, where she lived until the age of 9: the pigeons outside her window, "the aged, musty undertones of wood, mellowed with moss and warmed by the sun ... and floating in from somewhere ... a faint bitter whiff of grilled sardines."
Later, she records each new experience with the precision of a stenographer, adding it to her list of things she knows will someday be lost. "Remember this, remember the way it tastes," her mother tells her as they eat shaved ice topped with sweetened azuki beans at an old-fashioned teahouse, one of the few of its kind not yet extinct. And Sarah does.
In this beautifully restrained novel, love is intense but in limited supply. Rationed, like rice during the war that dismantled Mrs. Kobayashi's idyllic life, love in The Favorites isn't earned so much as bestowed, the recipient lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
And as situations -- both familial and historical -- shift, so too do allegiances. Here, everyone and everything is linked. As Mrs. Kobayashi reminds Yoko, "There is no such thing as just my generation."