Breasts and Eggs was not the book I thought it would be. I knew there would be mention of women’s roles, and women’s parts, in contemporary life. I knew it won the Akutagawa Prize and was highly praised by Haruki Murakami. But, I didn’t know we would spend so much time considering identity. Artificial insemination and donor conception. Single parenting and family.
Natsuko Natsume is 38 years old and single. She is a writer, and she begins her story by telling us what it means to be poor. “Maybe you’re poor now. Maybe you were poor in the past. I’m both…“ She lives in Tokyo, while her older sister, Makiko, lives in Osaka. They struggled to raise themselves, as their father left the family, and their mother died when they were girls.
When Makiko comes to visit her younger sister, she is focused on having a breast augmentation. Her make-up is thick, her body is excessively thin, her skin is gray and drawn, but she believes that larger boobs will make her beautiful. Her daughter, Midoriko, will not speak to either her mother, or her aunt. She writes everything on a pad of paper, or in her journal.
Writing is the best. You can do it anywhere, as long as you have a pen and paper. It’s free, too. And you an write whatever you want. How sweet is that.
While I agree that keeping a journal is a marvelous tool to sort one’s thoughts, or keep one’s memories, I couldn’t understand why Midoriko would not speak out loud until I came to this section of her journal:
So I got in another fight with Mom, over money. This one was way worse than the last one. In the middle of everything, I asked, why’d you even have me? I asked myself that all the time, but it’s a horrible thing to say out loud, I know…I thought it would be better if we didn’t talk for a while. I mean, we’d just end up fighting again, and I’d say something mean. (p. 58)
Buried within this quote is the beginning of the theme which Meiko Kawakami establishes throughout the novel: “Why’d you even have me?” In other words, why do parents have children?
While Makiko wishes to have her breasts enlarged, Natsuko longs for a child. Centered around this longing are great moral dilemmas. Does she have the right to bring a child into the world as a single mother? How will the child feel not knowing who the father is, or worse yet, finding out the father they thought was their father was actually not? An even bigger question is, “Is it fair to bring a child into the world, not knowing what kind of pain or disability the child may encounter?”
Meiko Kawakami explores these questions throughout the novel’s plot and within the character’s conversations. Yuriko and Aizawa are two people who discuss the reality of being conceived through donor conception with Natsuko.
“You’re betting that the child you bring into this will be at least as happy as you’ve been, at least as fortunate as you’ve been, or, at a minimum, that they’ll be able to say they’re happy they were born. Everyone says life is both good and bad, but the majority of people think it’s mostly good. That’s why people go through with it. The odds are good. Sure, everyone dies someday, but life has meaning, even pain and suffering have meaning and there’s so much joy. There’s not a doubt in your mind that your child will see it that way, just like you. No one thinks they’ll pull the short straw. They’re convinced everything will work out fine. But that’s just people believing what they want to believe. For their own benefit. The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours. (Yuriko, p. 276)
But, Jun Aizawa has come to terms with the origins of his birth. I loved the realization he makes toward the conclusion of the novel:
I’d been spending all of my time trying to find my father, thinking that was my only hope of discovering who I was. I thought that if I didn’t know him, I couldn’t know myself…Maybe there’s some truth to that, but now I have a sense of what’s really at the heart of it. I realize what’s been bothering me all along, ever since I heard the truth, is that I never got to tell my dad, I mean the dad who raised me, how I felt….I wish I could’ve found out earlier, when he was still alive. I would’ve told him that it didn’t change the way I felt, that he was still my dad, as far as I was concerned.” (Aizawa, p. 320)
Some quotes I found particularly intriguing, which perhaps we could discuss:
- “I was young once, but I was never pretty. When something isn’t there, inside or out, how are you supposed to seek it out? (p. 41)
- “Start judging people by their genetic profiles, and pretty soon you’re seeing them like handbags, ranking them like brands.” (p. 147)
- “Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?” (p. 219)
Did you like this novel? Do you agree with the decision Natsume ultimately made? Do you have any thoughts that I did not bring up in this post? I’m eager to know of your reactions to this novel.
Find more reviews at Japan Times, Books & Bao, Tony’s Reading List, and Words Without Borders.