Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, half-Japanese and half-American, feels like an outsider when she visits her family in Japan. She quickly learns that in traditional Kyoto, personal boundaries are firmly drawn and actions are not always what they appear. Sarah learns of a family secret -- an interfamily adoption arranged in the throes of World War II. Her grandmother gave up one of her daughters to the matriarch of the family, and the two families have coexisted quietly, living on the same lane. While this arrangement is never discussed, it looms over the two households. In this carefully articulated world, where every gesture and look has meaning, Sarah must learn the rules by which her mother, aunts, and grandmother live.
Delicately balancing drama and restraint, Waters captures these women -- their deep passions and tumultuous histories -- in this tender and moving novel about the power and beauty of mother-daughter relationships.
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About the Author
Mary Yukari Waters is half Japanese and half Irish-American. The recipient of an O. Henry award, a Pushcart Prize, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she has been published in The Best American Short Stories 2002 and 2003, The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize, and Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope 2 anthology. She earned her MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and lives in Los Angeles.
Hometown:Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:1965
Place of Birth:Kyoto, Japan
Education:M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of California Irvine, 2002
Read an Excerpt
It was an early morning in June 1978, and the Ueno neighborhood was just beginning to stir.
This was an old neighborhood, far enough north of the city's center to have the feel of a small village. It lay in the shadow of high green hills that surrounded the city of Kyoto like a giant horseshoe, trapping the moisture from its four rivers. A century ago, before the emperor's seat had moved to Tokyo (and before smog and pollution made their appearance), this moist climate had been considered ideal for the refined senses of the nobility: it captured the subtle fragrances of each season and fostered the most delicate complexions in the country. The downside, of course, was that Kyoto summers were brutally humid.
Fortunately the air was still cool and crisp, laced with the smells of moss and verdure that had sprouted so lushly during this month's rainy season. The walls and fences, their planks aged as soft and dark as velvet, reflected the pink glow of sunrise. Within cool pockets of shadow, the smell of dew-soaked wood still lingered.
At the open-air market, behind iron shop grates not yet rolled open for customers, rubber-booted fish vendors arranged the morning's catch on beds of ice. Several blocks away, a procession of shaved, robed priests from So-Zen Temple clip-clopped on geta through the crooked, narrow lanes. "Aaaaaa...," they intoned. "Ohhhhh...Ehhhhh..." They performed these vocal exercises each morning to develop stamina of the lungs, and indeed their deep, resonant voices rose up from their diaphragms and into the morning air like the long aftermath of a gong. All throughout the neighborhood, produce peddlers were beginning to make their appearance. These farming women, brown from the sun, came in each morning from the surrounding countryside. Noticeably shorter than their urban counterparts, they padded through the lanes on old-fashioned tabi shoes made of cloth, leaning their weight into wooden pushcarts and grinning up at customers from beneath the shade of white cloths draped under their straw hats. "Madam...? Good morning...," they called out every so often, as a gentle signal to housewives in their kitchens.
None of this registered with fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, who slept soundly after yesterday's long plane ride. She didn't hear her mother rising from the futon beside her, or the priests' distant chanting as they headed down Murasaki Boulevard on their way back to the temple complex, or the murmur of women's voices directly outside in the lane -- among which the excited tones of her mother and grandmother were mingled -- as they gathered around a peddler's cart.
The house in which Sarah slept had a gray tiled roof with deep eaves; its outer walls were left unpainted in order to display the wood's aged patina, which had deep chestnut undertones like the coat of a horse. This had been her mother's childhood home, but only her grandparents lived here now. The house stood on a corner, where a narrow gravel lane intersected a slightly wider paved street that fed into Murasaki Boulevard. Each summer the Kobayashi house attracted attention because of its morning glory vines, whose electric-blue blossoms blanketed the entire eastern side of the house. The locals -- housewives walking to the open-air market, entire families strolling to the bathhouse after dinner -- often altered their routes in order to admire the view. As Mrs. Kenji Kobayashi liked to tell people, she had nurtured these vines from a single potted plant that her granddaughter Sarah had given her eight years ago: a first-grade science project, grown from seed. The younger generation of adults would nod, remarking fondly that they'd had the same assignment as children, that they could remember documenting the seedlings' growth in sketch journals. Under Japan's public school system, all schools used the same government-issued textbooks.
Sarah Rexford hadn't attended a Japanese school since she was nine years old. That was the year she and her parents had moved away to America, after selling their home up in the Kyoto hills. There were various reasons for this move, one being that they thought it might be easier for Sarah to be with "her own kind," meaning children who wouldn't stare at her on the street or bully her after school. She was a mixed child, or as they said in Japan, a "half." Her features, however, were predominantly Western: straight nose, light gray eyes, dark wavy hair with brown highlights instead of blue.
The marriage of her mother, Yoko, to John Rexford, an American physicist almost old enough to be her father, had shocked everyone back in the early sixties. The match was particularly unusual because Kyoto was a traditional inland city, far removed from the seaports and military bases where such unions (euphemistically speaking) were known to occur. Fortunately Mr. Rexford was a civilian, a physicist at NASA. If he had been a military "GI," with all the unsavory connotations of that label, the Kobayashi family would not have been able to hold up their heads.
As the years passed and Yoko was neither abandoned nor mistreated by her American husband, the Ueno neighbors gradually came to accept the marriage. Some even suggested, as a graceful way of putting the scandal to rest, that the match had been ordained by fate. As they pointed out, it seemed prophetic in hindsight that the temple astrologer, on whom local parents relied for auspicious Chinese characters when naming their babies, had chosen for Yoko's name an unconventional hieroglyph associated with the Pacific Ocean.
And the neighbors agreed (how clear it seemed, looking back!) that Yoko Kobayashi had always been destined to lead a bigger, bolder life than her peers. Even as a child, there had been a larger-than-life quality about her -- a striking air of confidence, bordering on effrontery, that was apparent in her firm step and erect posture. This wasn't the result of wealth or privilege. The Kobayashis had no money, although like other families with good crests who had been ruined in the war, they still held remnants of their old status. Nor was Yoko unusually beautiful, although her features were above average. In fact, her face had been memorable for its expression of mature comprehension, better suited to a grown woman, rather than the limpid, innocent gaze that was so highly prized in Japanese children.
A more likely explanation for Yoko's charisma was her range of accomplishments. All throughout her academic career, with the exception of one year, she had been ranked first in her class. She was captain of the girls' high school tennis team. Twice, she won a certificate -- a fifth-place and a third -- in the annual municipal haiku contest held for adults. She passed Kyoto University's notorious entrance exam, the nemesis of ambitious young men from all over the country. Long after she married and left home, she continued to hold the record as the youngest pupil ever to have performed a solo at one of Mrs. Shimo's autumn koto recitals. She had been six years old.
Despite her achievements, Yoko Kobayashi was down-to-earth and shomin-teki, "of the people." The only time she abused her powers (although she preferred not to see it in quite that light) was when she defended the weak: a classmate bullied on the playground or, as she grew older, an adult belittled in "polite" conversation. Then Yoko's killer instinct arose and she was at her cruel, cutting best. As a result, some of her staunchest supporters belonged to the social classes beneath her. They were former schoolmates who had grown up to become silk weavers, vendors, or shopkeepers.
Over this past week, Mrs. Kenji Kobayashi had used her daughter's history to her advantage, enlisting the shopkeepers' expertise in choosing uncharacteristically expensive cuts of fish and the choicest slices of filet mignon. Although Mrs. Kobayashi was not as socially democratic as her daughter, Yoko, she was nonetheless admired for the cool elegance of her etiquette and poise. It was widely known that before her marriage, she had grown up in one of Kobe's most exclusive seaside neighborhoods. Perhaps it was the cosmopolitan sophistication of her birthplace -- not to mention her pleasing height -- that gave Mrs. Kobayashi the flair for carrying off, to such dashing effect, those Western-style clothes that almost everyone wore nowadays. "I'll take some of this Kobe beef, for Yoko and her daughter. They're coming to visit from America," she told the butcher, and in the same breath wondered aloud -- almost as if talking to herself -- whether it would be at all possible to adjust the price.
"For you, madam, certainly," he assured her. He could hardly say no.
"It's their first time back in five years...," Mrs. Kobayashi explained, and it was understood that today's favor would be balanced out by increased sales over the course of the visit. The butcher remembered the little "half" girl, wheedling her elders to buy this or that in an impeccable Kansai dialect that was completely at odds with her Caucasian features.
Mrs. Kobayashi's purchases now lay, shrink-wrapped and waiting, inside her tiny icebox. Some of them, like the sweet bean condiments and slices of teriyaki eel (for restoring strength to tired bodies), were already laid out on the table along with the usual breakfast staples: sweet omelettes, hot rice in a linen-draped wooden tub, julienned carrots and burdock roots cooked in mirin and soy sauce, a tall tin of dried seaweed, umeboshi with shiso leaves. A stack of lacquered bowls awaited the miso soup, which would be prepared at the last minute with skinny enoki mushrooms and tender greens. Mackerel steaks, sprinkled liberally with salt and broiling on the grill, filled the house with their savory aroma.
At the opposite end of the house, Sarah slowly awakened to the low, liquid burbling of pigeons in the lane. She had forgotten about the pigeons -- there weren't any back home in Fielder's Butte, California. Their contented bubbling struck a deep chord in her memory; suddenly she was a little girl again, half-asleep, cradled by the sounds and textures of her early childhood. She listened, eyes shut, cheek unmoving against the buckwheat-husk pillow. Other long-lost sounds emerged: the kitchen door sliding open and shut, its glass panels rattling softly in the aged wooden frame; a newly hatched cicada starting a feeble meen meen in the garden. Years later, when she listened to pigeons as an adult, their sound would be overlaid by the magic of this moment, as she wavered in time on a Japanese summer morning. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Yukari Waters
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Favorites includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Japan during World War II, a young mother is forced to allow her sister-in-law to secretly adopt one of her daughters. This arrangement is rarely discussed but its presence looms heavily over the relationships between the two houses; it strongly influences the emotional development of the two girls who grow up knowing which questions are better left unasked.
Decades later, when Yoko Rexford and her half-Japanese and half-American daughter Sarah return to Kyoto to visit, Sarah learns about her family’s complicated past. In this carefully articulated world, where every gesture and look has meaning, Sarah must learn the rules by which her mother, aunts, and grandmother have lived their entire lives. She also discovers what it means to love and to be loved.
Questions for Discussion
- Examine the characters of Sarah and Mrs. Rexford. How do their personalities differ? Does the book offer any explanations for how a daughter could turn out so differently from her mother? In what ways are the two women similar?
- Sarah's opinion of her mother transforms during their summer spent in Japan. What causes this shift? Would it have happened naturally as she grew older, or was their trip the main cause of this change?
- Sarah is a mixed-race child born in Japan. Her white skin, brown hair, and freckles make her look very different from her peers, and she often attracts inquisitive stares. How does she cope with this attention? What other challenges does her mixed heritage present? For a scene that shows Sarah negotiating cultural differences, turn to page 74, where she plays "American Emotions" with her Japanese cousins.
- Mrs. Kobayashi has three daughters, born under three very different circumstances and with three different personalities and lives as a result. Examine how the daughters differ in their life choices and how their distinct childhoods may have influenced the decisions they make as adults.
- Shortly after becoming a Jehovah's Witness, Mrs. Izumi tells Mrs. Rexford that Jehovah "feels identical love for each one of his children." Mrs. Rexford remarks that "it seems kind of impersonal" (pages 100–1). Why might Mrs. Izumi be drawn to this religion while Mrs. Rexford sees it as impersonal?
- On page 49, young Sarah observes Mrs. Rexford and wonders, "How did it feel to be her mother, to look up at a tree and be transported back to all those previous lives?...Something unfamiliar stirred in the girl: an inarticulate feeling, diffuse and layered like the groundswell of an orchestra. She knew it was an adult emotion, one caused by the passage of time." Examine the role that memories play in the novel. What memories are important to Sarah and Mrs. Rexford and what emotions do they invoke when recalled?
- The term “favorite” refers to different women throughout the course of the book. What does it mean to be a favorite, and how does a desire for this type of approval affect Mrs. Izumi? How does it shape Mrs. Rexford? Discuss how Mrs. Asaki also desires to be seen as a favorite. Is it possible to go through life without craving this level of preference from your parents or children?
- Toward the end of the book, Mrs. Kobayashi tells Sarah that "romance isn't just between men and women…It's a state of mind, I suppose. It may be beautiful but it comes with pain. And sacrifice. Not just for yourself, but for others around you" (page 257). What sacrifices do you think she is referring to? How does this view of love explain Mrs. Kobayashi's earlier actions in the book? In what ways do Mrs. Nishimura and Mrs. Rexford make similar sacrifices for love?
- What role do men play in this novel? Why do you think their influence is so limited?
- "This was a dangerous time for both of them; they were old women and they had been holding things together for a very long time" (page 189). This passage near the end of the book describes an intimate moment between Mrs. Asaki and Mrs. Kobayashi. What "things" is the author referring to? Do you agree that it is dangerous for the two women to let them go?
- The book is divided into parts, which allows us to see inside the heads of different characters. How does this technique add to or detract from your understanding of the story as a whole? By the story's end, do you feel you are able to empathize with each of the characters and the choices they've made?
Enhance Your Book Club
- Prepare Japanese matcha tea to enjoy during your book club discussion. You can find instructions for its preparation at www.matchaandmore.com. (I would also suggest making, or buying from an Asian grocery store, some of the many foods mentioned in the book: bento lunches, sukiyaki, gyoza potstickers, miso soup, ten-don, rice balls, azuki ice, octopus balls, etc.)
- Look up photos of the Kyoto temples described in the book and bring them in to share as a group. You can find them at www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kyoto-buddhist-temples.htm or by picking up a travel book at your local bookstore.
- The novel is filled with memories of Sarah’s childhood in Japan. Share some of the memories you have from your own childhood with members of your book club. How does it feel to recall these moments from your past?
A Conversation with the Author, Mary Yukari Waters
There are many aspects of this book that seem autobiographical. You and Sarah Rexford are both daughters of a Japanese housewife and an American scientist, both were born in Japan and moved to the United States while still children, both majored in economics, and both lost your parents before the age of thirty. Are these circumstantial similarities or can we infer a greater connection between you and Sarah?
I focused on writing about the world I know, so there’s a lot of autobiographical information in this book. The supporting characters are also based on actual people; the family dynamics, as well as the houses and neighborhood, were taken from real life. But this isn’t a memoir. Much of the story comes not just from my own life, but from those of various Japanese neighbors my elders used to gossip about when I was a child. I took a lot of liberty in combining these family stories, so the result is no longer technically “true.”
Mothers’ and daughters’ desires for approval are a major theme of The Favorites. Would you say that this desire has played a role in your life as well? If so, which character in the book are you most similar to in terms of dealing with this emotion?
This desire is a big part of the human experience and I imagine everyone has experienced it on some level. When I first started writing this book, I naturally gravitated toward Sarah because her situation was based so closely on mine. But as I went further, I found that each of the other characters tapped into an equally authentic part of my emotional makeup. That was a surprise to me, on a personal level. At this point I have a hard time picking one character over the others – which is not at all the way I was expecting to feel.
What initially attracted you to writing this story about mother and daughter relationships?
Interestingly, this wasn’t the original attraction. I was interested in the dynamics of interfamilial adoption, where both biological and adoptive parents could coexist on the same street. The psychological complexity of such a situation fascinated me to no end. The mother and daughter dynamics came in later, almost in stealth mode. I suppose it was inevitable, because it’s always been such a powerful force for me personally, as well as for the women in my family.
You've mentioned in prior interviews that you are fascinated by people who have faced adversity, which sometimes makes people mean or cynical and sometimes makes people stronger. How has adversity affected your own life, for better or worse?
I haven’t had that much crushing misfortune: no wars, no terrible diseases, no grinding poverty. So while I’ve observed other people affected by great tragedy, the verdict isn’t in for me yet. Maybe that’s what accounts for my fascination – the wondering about what I’m made of, and what type of person I will end up to be.
In the book, Sarah plays a game called "American Emotions" with her cousins. Where did this idea come from?
From childhood experience. I played it with some neighborhood children, and that game had a surprisingly long lifespan that lasted even after I went away. Maybe it was the thrill of being a little bit mean, as well as the constant stream of inspiration in the form of new television reruns.
You grew up in Japan. What are your strongest memories of that period of your life?
It’s hard to choose – there are so many! One of the pleasures of writing this novel is that I was able to weave many of them into the story. In general, my strongest childhood memories are linked to smell or sound. I think the best memories are impressionistic, hard to define emotionally; an instant in time, when you catch a whiff of cafeteria school rice or burning leaves, ends up being more viscerally powerful than a linear event such as a school ceremony or a birthday. It’s interesting, I think, that one’s strongest memories (or at least mine) are often moments, or moods, or scraps of dialogue, that weren’t remotely interesting or significant at the time.
Can you talk a little about being a writing teacher? What classes do you teach? Do your students ever influence your own writing?
Right now I’m working at a low-residency MFA program (Spalding University) and a traditional MFA program (UCR at Palm Desert). I’ve been teaching writing for a good many years, and I really, really enjoy it. Although I read a lot of great student work, I can’t say that my students have ever influenced my writing. My own writing sensibility, for better or worse, is pretty firmly ingrained (that’s one benefit of starting to write later in life, after you’ve lived a little and are more in touch with yourself), so my style is not that easily swayed by whatever I happen to be reading at the time.
You’ve written many acclaimed short stories. What made you decide to write a novel? What is different about the process of writing each? Which is easier for you? Which do you prefer?
I think I would feel incomplete as a writer if I’d never tried to write a novel. I enjoy novels, and I read them for pleasure more than I do short stories, so it was a matter of time until I worked up the nerve to write one. Since this was my first stab at novel writing, it felt psychologically harder – it was such a long process and it dragged on for years, without the instant gratification that comes with a shorter piece. Apart from that, there wasn’t much difference in the technical aspects of writing, which was a relief. At this point in time, I think I’d like to try writing another novel because I’m still new to this form and there’s something heady about the challenge.
You have completed your first novel, what's next? Are there any new themes you wish to explore in your writing?
I’m working on a second novel. Yes, I do have some themes in mind that I’d like to explore, but none of it is set in stone yet, so I’ll say no more for fear of jinxing myself.