Reviewed By Janice P. Nimura
True fluency in two cultures is a privilege -- and a burden -- granted to few. Mary Yukari Waters is one of these. Her Irish American father met and married her mother in Kyoto, Japan, where Waters spent her early years. At age 9, she moved with her parents to California, where she still lives, while remaining close to her Kyoto relatives. Strikingly Caucasian-looking to the Japanese, more Japanese at heart than Americans suspect, Waters is unusually able to explain them to each other.
Six years ago, Waters published "The Laws of Evening," a collection of quiet, precise stories that brought the submerged trauma of postwar Japan to agonized life. Each story was an intimate ink drawing, expressing volumes of pain and stubborn hope with a few eloquent strokes. They were exquisite, and complete in themselves, but to Waters, it seems, they were just a sketchbook.
"The Favorites," her first novel, borrows liberally from many of the stories, repeating images and characters in a larger format, one perhaps not as well-suited to her minimal style.
The novel's first half is an expanded revision of Waters' semiautobiographical story "The Way Love Works." In the summer of 1978, 14-year-old Sarah Rexford and her mother, Yoko, arrive in Kyoto from California for an extended visit with Sarah's sprightly grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi.
After five years of expatriate unease, Yoko has returned to her natural element, and Sarah watches in wonder as her mother reclaims her place as charismatic "queen bee" of the neighborhood and apple of her mother's eye. Sarah, used to rolling her adolescent eyes at Yoko's cultural gaffes at home, is startled at the pleasure she now takes in her mother's reflected glory.