Half-Japanese, half-American Sarah Rexford is fourteen when her family returns to her mother’s native Kyoto for a summer vacation in the late 1970s. As she sorts out the complex relationships between the women of her extended family, she learns that her grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi, gave up a daughter to be adopted by a family member during the years after World War II. The adoption is known to many but not discussed, and the families have lived in close proximity all of their lives. As an outsider to the close-knit society of women, Sarah is in the unique position of observer, and she sees not only the quiet sadness bubbling beneath the surface of calm, but also the generational changes among the women of her family.
Waters sets her story exclusively within the domestic realm, and the plot is full of scenes from the women’s everyday lives: cooking, shopping, tending to family matters, and ceremony. With each return to her ancestral home, Sarah finds that the women have, with age, let go of some of the formality and begun to move past their shared history and to understand why Mrs. Kobayashi made the difficult and heartbreaking decision to allow a daughter to be raised by another family member.
Throughout the novel, Waters avoids the obvious and hones in on the subtle dramas that affect this small, tight-knit family. There’s no climactic, bombastic mother-daughter confrontation, merely a series of small gestures from one woman to another as they acknowledge their shared past and their mutual love, respect, and care. The result is an emotional novel that is as real and as affecting as they come.