The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

As WWII approaches, a Japanese family is ostensibly run by the household of an oldest sister, Tsuruko. However, Tsuruko’s household does preciously little other than give marching orders in the crisis faced by the extended Japanese family…finding a marriage for an aging middle daughter Yukiko and then one for a younger and increasingly troublesome daughter Taeko. Instead, these problems are primarily addressed by the household of the second oldest daughter in the family, Sachiko, as Tsuruko’s household leaves the family seat for Tokyo as part of an increasing focus on money making and thrift as opposed to family obligations. This is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Valerie Martin, 10th for David Mitchell, and 9th Cathleen Schine.)

Arranging Yukiko’s marriage is a difficult matter. Many years have passed as suitor after suitor was refused due to inflexible standards due to the Makioka family standing. Yukiko herself creates problems when the family decides to let their standards slip a bit:

Most unfortunate, thought Sachiko. Yukiko’s dislike for the telephone was no secret, and when—rarely—there was a call for her she usually had someone else do the talking and went to the telephone herself on very special occasions. No one had objected up to now, but this was one of those special occasions. Whatever Hashidera’s reasons for calling, it seemed imperative, since he had asked for her, that Yukiko take the call. He would receive quite the wrong impression if Sachiko were to talk to him instead. Yukiko was after all not a sixteen-year-old. Though her sister understood this shyness, they could hardly expect a stranger to understand. They would be lucky if Hashidera was not offended. Perhaps Yukiko had gone to the telephone, timing and protecting? But to go reluctantly after having made him wait, to say almost nothing—she was even worse over the telephone than she was face-to-face—and as a result to have him break on the negotiations—the better alternative might be to let him go on waiting. There was always that stubborn core. Possibly she had refused to go near the telephone, and was waiting for Sachiko to rescue her. Even if Sachiko were to rush home, however, she would probably find that he had given up, and if he had not, what could she say by way of excuse? This was one time when Yukiko herself should have taken the call, and promptly. Something told Sachiko that this trivial incident could mean the end of the negotiations on which they had worked so hard.

Taeko is an entirely different problem. She almost eloped when she was younger (causing a newspaper story), wants to work for herself, sponges off a man she no longer intends to marry, and worse:

Taeko nodded apathetically. “I know what is wrong without calling a doctor.”

“Oh? What is it then?”

Her face against the chair, Taeko looked sluggishly up at her sister. “It looks as though I am three or four months pregnant.” She spoke with the usual calm.

Sachiko gasped, and stared as though to bore a hole through her sister’s face. It was a moment or two before she could ask the question: “Is it Kei-boy’s?”

“Miyoshi’s. I think Yukiko heard about Miyoshi from the old woman.”

“The bartender?”

Taeko nodded. “I am sure that is my trouble.”

This all doesn’t help the family’s attempts to get Yukiko get married, much less help Sachiko figure out what to do about Taeko.

Of course, this is all going on as WWII is about to explode. We can see it coming, and the characters think about what they see and hear, but they are inescapably wrapped up in their own family problems above and beyond any of that. They just can’t see how insignificant their personal problems are about to be. WWII will change Japan forever, but until then Yukiko must get married and something must be done about Taeko.

The Makioka Sisters is an enthralling picture of pre-World War II Japan. The characters are vividly human, the described world is tangible, and the interrelationships are meticulously ordered. It involved a declining family as opposed to a destroyed one, and that gives a different kind of urgency to their preservation efforts and struggles. All is not yet lost, meaning that their efforts have more significant weight. All in all, The Makioka Sisters is quite beautiful.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.