Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb (Translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

tokyof iance What I liked most about Amelie Nothomb’s novel Tokyo Fiancée is the way her love story allows her to create such a detailed and wonderful picture of life in modern Japan.  Never having been to Japan, I have no way of knowing how accurate the picture she paints is, however, it is so rich in detail that her version of Japan, whether it is real or not, is the one I shall believe in for quite some time.

Her romance concerns a young woman also named Amalie also from Belgium who has come to Japan to escape her family and her life and to learn to speak Japanese.  She decides that the best way to learn Japanese and to make some money is to offer her services as a French tutor to Japanese students.  She is upfront about this in her advertisement which produces only one student, a young man, college age like herself.  The two meet at a cafe.

I met my student at the cafe in Omote-Sando.  The lesson began focused on the weather. A good idea because the weather, and ideal topic for people who have nothing to say to each other, is the primary and obligatory topic of conversation in Japan.

To meet someone and fail to talk about the weather is to betray a lack of manners.

The two have an odd sort of romance, one that is hard to permeate.  What exactly they see in each other is almost as mysterious to the reader as it is to the two main characters.

What I was experiencing with Rinri was something new, founded on a shared, and charming, awkwardness.  Our life as a couple resembled the water-filled mattress we slept on: out-moded, uncomfortable and funny.  Our bond consisted in sharing a moving sense of malaise.

Rinri takes the narrator into his world of slightly upper-class Japan.  The reader is along for a wonderful ride full of illuminating moments.

When Rinri invites his friends over to meet Amelie, she is shocked to find herself doing all of the talking while Rinri stays in the kitchen preparing food.  The group of men she is with listen intently but say nothing.  She carries on a monologue as best she can, stopping a few times and waiting for someone else to jump in, silently daring them by waiting as long as she can before continuing her monologue.  Only afterwards, while Rinri is telling her how much his friends like her, is she made aware that it is the custom for a Japanese party to have a single speaker, one person who provides the conversation for everyone.  Usually, this person is given a dossier, listing all the guests, their personal backgrounds and histories, which makes it possible to tell everyone about everyone else.

When Rinri takes Amelie on a hike up Mt. Fuji, we learn that the Japanese believe one cannot be truly Japanese until one has walked up the mountain.  There are no accommodations along the way, so one must walk all the way up to the top in a single day. Typically, people walk down again before nightfall.  Amelie sees all sorts of Japanese people, young and very old, even a pregnant woman, walking up the mountain side, some clearly struggling, but all determined to make this pilgrimage.

Towards the end of their romance, Rinri takes Amelie to the island of Sado, far off the coast of the main islands.  Sado, which  is completely forested, is known for it’s hot springs and for the resorts built upon them.  Though she is reluctant at first, Amelie leaves the tub in their private room for the much larger one outside in the courtyard.  It is winter, and she is alone in a tub large enough for ten people.

To be naked in a warm bath while snowflakes are falling: I uttered little cries of ecstasy.  It was such a pleasure to be in this tub and feel the icy crystals land upon my head.

I can only imagine.  But doesn’t that sound great.

The love affair between Amelie and Rinri is never really passionate, in spite of becoming physical. The two share a bond but it is not a bond of passionate love.  They are really two people who happened to be there for each other at just the right time.  Their story provides a window onto Japanese life that many of us probably would not have otherwise.

I’d love to hear from someone who has read the book and spent time in Japan.