The Perfect Love Affair, Japanese Style

Part of me wants to torture you by saying things like:

You will never forget the scene with the baby octopus. Ever. And believe me, you won’t. I went completely into shock…

Tokyo FianceeOkay, but since young Belgian superstar Amelie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancee doesn’t come out until the first of January, that would be a mean tease. And if it’s one thing this book isn’t, it’s mean. This book is a pure-hearted joy.

What a perfect book for a reading group. I’ve effortlessly stumbled on the ideal selection for our book club in gloomy, gray January. Light, swift, romantic, and frequently hilarious, Tokyo Fiancee is the story of twenty-one-year-old Amelie’s 1989 return to the Japan of her early childhood, where she decides to teach French in order to learn Japanese. She’s promptly hired by Rinri, a student who is a year younger, very polite, very clean-cut, and as a friend has to point out to Amelie, very good-looking. He shows up outside her apartment for each lesson in a white Mercedes, refers to her as Sensei, and promptly falls in love with her.

Amelie 1Nothomb is an utterly good-humored young author who genuinely loves Japan, genuinely likes Rinri, and fearlessly records her perceptions, from the Japanese fondness for equipment of all kinds to finding out why Japanese tourists always travel in groups and take photos of everything. (Rinri brags that he has never owned a camera!) For such a very short book, it’s jam-packed with odd little scenes you’ve never read before – Amelie’s dinner hosting Rinri’s eleven male friends (without Rinri), her terrifying night caught alone in a blizzard in a little mountain hut, and then, of course, the scene with the little octopus.

But I wasn’t going to talk about that.

Amelie 2Her youthful energy is occasionally silly. She can be naïve enough to say, “…deep within anything that throbs with pain there is sensual delight.” When she’s seen a little more of life, she’ll think twice about that. But more often than not she hits the nail on the head. “Survivors know that no one can ever understand them.”

Amelie 3Most unusual in the novel is the female role in the love story. She absolutely inverts the feminine stereotype. When Rinri brings her a gift of persimmons, she eats them all without thinking to offer him one. Amelie has an unchecked zest for life. She sees the romance as comic and fun-filled. She runs up Mount Fuji rather than wait for her slower boyfriend, and when he asks her to marry him, she stalls him into becoming her fiancé, instead.

Amelie 4The resolution of the novel will have your reading group all over it, defending its honesty or attacking its callousness. But believe me, the concluding, seven-years-later coda that the story ends on will leave all readers satisfied with their reading experience and touched deeply by something not quite Belgian and not quite Japanese, but extraordinarily human.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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