The Favorites by Mary Yukari Waters

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The Favorites by Mary Yukari Waters

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An absorbing and beautifully written story about a young woman growing up, and the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters in a Japanese family.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Pocket Books
ISBN: 978-1847392336

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This story is set in Kyoto, Japan, starting in June 1978. Fourteen year old Sarah Rexford and her Japanese mother, Yoko, have come back from the US to stay with family for a few weeks. Sarah was born and brought up in Japan but has lived in the US with her mother and white American father for five years. She is very conscious of the differences between life in Kyoto and in Fielder's Butte, California. Here in Kyoto, the women, including Sarah and her mum, go shopping every day for food, and the food is very different – in an opening scene, Sarah is trying to explain to her grandfather what she normally has for breakfast in the US, and becoming aware of the gulf between her life in Japan and in California.

She also learns this summer about the complex, difficult relationships between the women in her family and the secrets behind them. Asking about the tension and awkwardness during a visit from other relatives, her mother reveals that her cousin Masako is in fact her younger sister, and Grandma gave her up for adoption to her sister in law. Yoko and her mother have a very close loving relationship, whereas Masako feels upset that she was given up. Masako's real mother longs to talk to the daughter she gave up about what happened, but she also recognises that this would undermine the relationship between Masako and her adoptive mother.

I found the beginning of this book a bit of struggle, as it took me a while to understand who was related to who. I also think the way in which Waters distinguishes her characters is sometimes a bit jarring, as they are very often referred to by either their full names – Yoko Rexford, or by their titles and surnames – Mrs Rexford and Mrs Kobayashi. This might be accurate but I find it quite odd people being referred to so formally within a family, even one where there is a lot of concern with boundaries and distance, to protect people's feelings or to keep secrets.

Once I got into the novel though I was really drawn into the story and anxious to see that the characters were able to talk to each other more, hoping that they would be able to talk through things and come to terms with the past, whether as the baby given away, the birth mother or the adoptive one. I really began to care about the characters and read the book very quickly, anxious to see how these difficulties within the extended family would be resolved.

Interestingly, Sarah is shown as a central character and the dominant narrative viewpoint, and I have the impression this novel about growing up has an autobiographical element. As the novel progresses and we learn more about the past, though, her grandmother's generation becomes much more important, and the characters of Mrs Kobayashi (Yoko's mother) and Mrs Asaki (the adopter) turn out to be far more memorable than that of Sarah.

The Favorites is Mary Yukari's first novel but I will be looking out for her previously published short story collection after reading this.

Thank you to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Other novels about growing up and identity include The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno and Besotted by Joe Treasure. Another book about Japan is Alan Macfarlane's Japan Through the Looking Glass.

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