Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami

Where Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 presents a Korean everywoman without diving too deeply into her thoughts and feelings, Mieko Kawakami’s portrait of a Japanese writer, Breasts and Eggs, is all thoughts and feelings. Natsuko Natsume lives in Tokyo, eking out a living as a freelance writer. She lives alone. Although she socializes with friends and stays relatively close to her sister and niece, Natsuko is a lonely woman. She’s used to shuffling along, shifting for herself; she tends to listen more than speaking. But, over time, she starts to wonder how she—a single woman who doesn’t like sex—might have a child. This slow moving book closely examines what it means to have the ability to bear a child. Sam Bett and David Boyd did an incredible job translating Kawakami’s prose. The conversations are particularly lively, given the overall pace of the book.

Breasts and Eggs is a novella paired with a longer novel. The title is much more on the nose in regards to the novella. In it, Natsuku hosts her sister, Makiko, and her niece, Midoriko. Makiko is investigating plastic surgery clinics in the hopes of getting breast implants. Meanwhile, Midoriko has stopped talking except through notes. Midoriko’s journal entries reveal her preoccupation with ova, ovaries, and menstruation and her unhappy bewilderment at her mother’s obsession with breasts. Thankfully, all of this emotional angst resolves in a highly symbolic moment of catharsis.

The longer novel moves much more slowly than the novella. It focuses almost solely on Natsuko. Other characters make brief appearances to converse with Natsuko, who then spends pages digesting what people have told her. The result is that we spend a lot of time thinking about why people have children. Characters are variously horrified (most of them) or encouraging of Natsuko’s decision to be artificially inseminated by a sperm donor. Natsuko’s sister is initially horrified. Even though Makiko had a child at a young age and quickly separated from the father, Makiko argues for a traditional family set up as the only way to have a child. Another character, a child who was the result of artificial insemination and suffered sexual abuse, vehemently argues against having children at all, declaring that bearing a child is an act of egotistical violence. I was struck by all of the thought and deliberation and argumentation about having children. I know very few people who planned to have a child. I’m fairly sure my siblings and I were all happy accidents. (My mother blames shore leave and good wine.)

The novel reaches a conclusion about whether or not Natsuko should have a child in her unconventional way. I appreciated this, given how opinions ranged from character to character. I wasn’t sure until the very end if Natsuko would follow through on her plan. That said, I think Breasts and Eggs would be a fantastic choice for a book club. There are so many questions to think about. When should someone have a child? What is an acceptable reason to have a child? What does a parent owe to their child if they use artificial insemination? There are so many nuances to motherhood and womanhood to unpack; a book club could talk about Breasts and Eggs for hours.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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