Note: There will be spoilers for this book in this review, as much as there can be for a book without a whole lot of story.
This is a book that was translated from Japanese, and is focused on a young Japanese man whose family is basically the equivalent of a British Regency family who has made their fortune in trade. This “new money” aristocracy is a different type than the old, and I think part of my enjoyment of this book was mitigated by my lack of knowledge of Japan’s social structure at the time (early 1900’s).
This is one of those books that doesn’t have much of a plot, and it took me a while to begin to care about any of the characters. I wouldn’t have continued at all if this book hadn’t been for my traveling book club. Kiyoaki is the main character, and is incredibly self-centered and boring. In his late teens, he has all the usual arrogance of that age, plus a dash of extra because he’s rich and extremely good looking. (The handsome part is emphasized again and again and AGAIN and seems to really be Kiyoaki’s only character trait.) There’s a neighbor girl, Sakoto, who is a couple of years older than Kiyoaki and who has always had a bit of a crush on him. (Also, she’s beautiful. This isn’t talked about quite as much as Kiyoaki’s handsomeness, but it’s close.) Kiyoaki doesn’t like her because he thinks she is always teasing/tricking him and doesn’t take him seriously, which he finds upsetting. Throughout the course of the story, he rebuffs Sakoto repeatedly, convinced that he doesn’t care for her.
Tired of waiting for Kiyoaki to step up to the plate, Sakoto’s parents find another husband for her, one who is connected to the royal family. An engagement of this type cannot be broken, and before everything is made official, everyone checks and double-checks with Kiyoaki to see if he really, really doesn’t want to marry Sakoto, and he blows everyone off. So Sakoto gets engaged to the royal guy, and guess what – all of a sudden Kiyoaki realizes he’s desperately in love with Sakoto!!!
The rest of the book turns into the kind of train-wreck story where you can’t quite look away. Kiyoaki gets some kind of blackmail hold over Sakoto’s servant (I can’t remember what exactly) and forces her to arrange a meeting between him and Sakoto at a sketchy hotel. Once there, they literally have sex pretty much as soon as she walks in the door! It felt super abrupt. After that, they start sneaking around all over the place, and it basically is one of those tales where they feel like because their love is forbidden, it’s so much more romantic – an idea I don’t really have a lot of patience with.
The story goes on and on and on without a lot happening. Throughout the whole story, Kiyoaki has a best friend of sorts named Honda. Honda is a rather odd background/secondary character. For some reason, he is inordinately fond of Kiyoaki, and feels extremely loyal to him, despite the fact that Kiyoaki kind of treats him like trash a lot of the time. They aren’t really friends of the sort that I would think of, since they don’t confide in each other or even spend all that much time together. But eventually Kiyoaki tells Honda about Kiyoaki’s relationship with Sakoto. Honda, of course, also thinks it’s romantic and is also willing to help Kiyoaki as necessary.
Lots of this book had beautiful language. The writing was quite good, even in translation, and it was a rather interesting look at a section of Japanese culture at the time. However, for large swaths of pages absolutely nothing happened, other than Kiyoaki being extremely handsome, or Honda rambling on about his latest religious theory. (Honda becomes almost unwillingly enamored with Buddhism, and frequently likes to discuss the possibilities of reincarnation and other aspects of it with Kiyaoki.) Honda is the only likable character out of the whole bunch, and he isn’t around all that much. Kiyoaki is unbelievably self-absorbed. His parents are uninteresting. There is a bit with a servant who is just plain strange. Sakoto is also very self-absorbed, although I give her credit for taking control of her destiny at least somewhat by the end. There just wasn’t anyone to root for. It’s obvious that Kiyoaki and Sakoto’s relationship is headed for complete disaster, so it’s not like there was any hope of an even vaguely happy ending for anyone.
Speaking of the ending, I feel like I may as well tell you all how it finishes, since you’ve come this far. If my review thus far has made you want to read this book, don’t finish my review haha
Eventually, the inevitable happens and Sakoto gets pregnant. Luckily, (quote unquote) they are able to keep the scandal within the family. All the parents are furious, especially since they basically begged Kiyoaki to marry Sakoto before she got engaged to the prince, and he totally blew everyone off. There are a couple of chapters of everyone telling Sakoto that she has to have an abortion (even though she doesn’t want one), and I’m always extremely put off by characters who act like unborn babies are an “it” that can be disposed of like a candy bar wrapper – especially when those people are forcing that attitude on the mother, who actually wants to keep her baby! The four parents come up with a complicated scheme to ship Sakoto off to get her abortion without anyone finding out why she was really traveling. However, Sakoto has a few tricks up her own sleeve, and convinces them to let her stop by a Buddhist abbey on the journey. She’s forced to get the abortion, but they let her stop to visit this old nun who had made an impression on everyone in one of the first chapters. There, Sakoto determines to take her vows and also become a nun, and the old nun won’t let her parents take her away.
Then there’s an entire chapter where everyone is wailing about Sakoto’s hair, which she cut off in order to become a novice (or something) and trying to figure out how they can hid the fact that she’s bald during her wedding, without appearing to realize that Sakoto isn’t going to get married at all. In the end, they are too late because Sakoto skips all the novice bits and goes straight into being a full-fledged nun. The parents have to scramble around and come up with a clever story that doesn’t make Sakoto look crazy or make the prince look like a bad guy, but they manage to make it work and everyone is mostly happy.
Meanwhile, Kiyoaki is in the depths of despair and is desperate to see Sakoto, so he runs away to try and get into the abbey. Somehow, he ends up really sick – this part is kind of vague – because he goes from being a completely healthy 19-year-old to suddenly being on death’s doorstep. The old nun won’t let him see Sakoto (part of her vow was to never see Kiyoaki again), but Kiyoaki climbs this giant hill every day to beg the nun to let him see her, even though he’s soooo sick, thinking that this sign of his devotion will aid his plea. Kiyoaki sends for Honda, who of course drops everything to come help his “friend” – eventually, after visiting the nun himself, Honda convinces Kiyoaki that he has to go home, and then Kiyoaki dies, although I can’t remember if he makes it home first or not.
Just. Why. I thought this book was never going to end. I feel like my summary was super boring. Now imagine that summary being dragged out for over 300 pages!
I don’t completely regret reading this book, as it was an interesting story, and it’s always intriguing to read books in translation. Culturally, it was a worthwhile read. But most of my reading is for pleasure, and this book definitely wasn’t that.
As an aside, this is apparently the first book in a series whose connecting character is actually Honda. Throughout every book, Honda meets someone whom he is convinced is a reincarnation of Kiyoaki, and in each book Honda tries to keep that character from meeting a tragically young demise – and, of course, fails. I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be giving the rest of the series a miss!