Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tokyo FiancéeTokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"More than in any other country on earth, the Japanese did things because they were done."

Other readers will probably find Amélie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancée (2007) - yet another autobiographical work by this popular Belgian author - more interesting than I did; alas I may have been a little overexposed to details of the author's biography, having recently finished reading her The Life of Hunger . While neither of these books rises to the true masterpiece level of Loving Sabotage , they are both sweet, charming, and very readable. It is not Ms. Nothomb's fault that I suffer from the Too Much Of The Same Thing syndrome, and the repetitiveness of the main topic prevents me from enjoying the books with the level of enthusiasm they deserve.

After 16 years away, the author returns to Japan, the place of her birth and early childhood, to learn Japanese and get an adult-level view of the country. The first sentence sets up the premise: "The most efficient way to learn Japanese, it seemed, would be to teach French." And so she places an ad and immediately finds her first pupil, a twenty-year-old student, Rinri, a handsome, extremely well-behaved and proper young man, heir of a wealthy family. Not only do they teach each other their respective languages but they also get close emotionally and live together for quite some time, the affair being much more serious for Rinri than for Amélie.

The book offers enlightening glimpses into Japanese society and culture, as viewed through the eyes of 21-year-old Amélie and then filtered through the mind of an almost 40-year-old, accomplished writer. The good thing about Tokyo Fiancée is that the observations feel authentically youthful and devoid of mature cynicism. The Mount Fuji story - the dramatic highpoint of the book - is captivating and very well written. Of course, one appreciates the funny depictions of various seemingly inexplicable Japanese customs: my favorite is the story of Amélie's party to which Rinri invites eleven young men, his university friends, none of whom says anything all evening long.

So while this modest, quiet, little book gets my wholehearted recommendation as an interesting and pleasant read, it does not in any way transcend the frame of a standard memoir, and the anti-repetitiveness bias prevents me from rating it higher.

Two and a half stars.

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