Book Review: Tokyo Fiancée

What could be better for cold, gloomy January than a sparkling, refreshingly smart new take on cross-cultural romance? Young Belgian superstar Amelie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancee is fast-paced, light-hearted and frequently hilarious novel. It's the story of 21-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.

Nothomb is a 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 packed with odd little scenes you've never read before--Amelie's dinner hosting Rinri's 11 male friends (without Rinri), her terrifying night caught alone in a blizzard in a little mountain hut and a particularly disturbing, riotously funny scene with a dead little octopus. Well, sort of dead.

Her 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."

Most unusual is the female role in the love story. She absolutely inverts the feminine stereotype. Amelie has a zest for life unchecked by any man. When Rinri brings her a gift of persimmons, she eats them all without thinking to offer him one. 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.

The resolution of the novel will have you either defending its honesty or attacking its callousness. But the concluding, seven-years-later coda that the story ends on will leave all readers deeply touched by something not quite Belgian and not quite Japanese, but extraordinarily human. Besides, you will never forget the scene with the little octopus. Ever.--Nick DiMartino

Shelf Talker: A beguiling, smart take on cross-cultural romance, set in Tokyo, from a young Belgian author.


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