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Love in Translation

Love in Translation

4.0 4
by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

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Stuck. That's how 33-year-old aspiring singer Celeste Duncan feels, with her deadbeat boyfriend and static career. But then Celeste receives a puzzling phone call and a box full of mysterious family heirlooms which just might be the first real clue to the identity of the father she never knew. Impulsively, Celeste flies to Japan to search for a long-lost relative


Stuck. That's how 33-year-old aspiring singer Celeste Duncan feels, with her deadbeat boyfriend and static career. But then Celeste receives a puzzling phone call and a box full of mysterious family heirlooms which just might be the first real clue to the identity of the father she never knew. Impulsively, Celeste flies to Japan to search for a long-lost relative who could be able to explain. She stumbles head first into a weird, wonderful world where nothing is quite as it seems—a land with an inexplicable fascination with foreigners, karaoke boxes, and unbearably perky TV stars.

With little knowledge of Japanese, Celeste finds a friend in her English-speaking homestay brother, Takuya, and comes to depend on him for all variety of translation, travel and investigatory needs. As they cross the country following a trail after Celeste's family, she discovers she's developing "more-than-sisterly" feelings for him. But with a nosy homestay mom scheming to reunite Takuya with his old girlfriend, and her search growing dimmer, Celeste begins to wonder whether she's made a terrible mistake by coming to Japan. Can Celeste find her true self in this strange land, and discover that love can transcend culture?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A delightful novel about love, identity, and what it means to be adrift in a strange land. This story of a search has an Alice in Wonderland vibe; when Celeste climbs down the rabbit hole, one can't help but follow along.” —Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of Year of Fog

“Tokunaga... describe[s] Japanese culture in absorbing detail.” —Publishers Weekly

“The engaging characters in this entertaining story will transport readers into a unique culture, giving them an eye-opening tour of Japan along the way. It's a lot of fun watching someone whose world is turned upside down discover that the new configuration is exactly what's needed.” —Romantic Times BOOKReviews, 4 stars

“This story has a delightful plot with wonderful characterizations.” —Affaire de Coeur

“A fun yet profound tale due to the lead female who uses self deprecating amusing metaphors.” —Harriet Klausner, Genre Go Round Reviews

Love in Translation is packed to the brim with adventure, love, and a lot of humor, and readers of any background will find something to enjoy within its pages.” —SKrishnasBooks.com

“A delectably frothy debut.” —Publishers Weekly on Midori by Moonlight

“[Midori by Moonlight] draws upon vivid imagery when defining traits of Japanese culture and really hits the nail on the head when depicting some American attitudes toward others.... witty and charming.” —Charleston Gazette on Midori by Moonlight

“Tokunaga suffuses the book with warmth and lightness.... Just as the right dessert hits the spot, reading this delicious slice of escapism makes for a perfect afternoon.... You'll muse for days about the characters you've left behind.” —San Francisco Chronicle on Midori by Moonlight

Publishers Weekly
Tokunaga (Midori by Moonlight) proves her ability to describe Japanese culture in absorbing detail, though she’s less adept at bringing her characters to life. After aspiring San Jose singer Celeste Duncan learns her aunt Michiko has died and left her possessions to her long-lost sister, Hiromi, Celeste dumps her dud boyfriend and relocates to Tokyo to find Hiromi and, hopefully, the identity of her own father. Her quest introduces her to a bustling Tokyo, and the staples of its pop culture are explored as Celeste bounces from experience to experience—commuting as contact sport, romance with a Japanese man, karaoke and her participation in a music competition show. While it’s easy to see why Celeste would be taken with Tokyo, it’s less clear why readers should be taken with Celeste, who comes across less a convincing lead than a tour guide. (Dec.)

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

Love in Translation



WHEN I FIRST SET EYES ON TAKUYA, MY IMMEDIATE INCLINATION WAS TO take him in my arms and kiss him like he'd never been kissed before.

Such impulsive, reckless behavior, though, was never my style. And, besides, taking such a course of action would have been inappropriate for several reasons: (1) we had yet to be officially introduced; (2) he, at twenty-eight, was five years younger than me, a fact that would be considered rather scandalous in Japan; (3) I had a kind of a boyfriend back home in San Jose; (4) Takuya was my homestay "brother."

It had been his mother, Mrs. Kubota, who first referred to him as my homestay brother. And the fact that I was experiencing more than sisterly feelings toward him was probably against one of the rules stated in the Kubota Homestay Handbook, if there'd been such a thing.

Takuya was lean and lanky, but solid, and towered over his parents. He had just returned to his family home in suburban Tokyo from working for two years in Seattle for the Japanese food products company Sunny Shokuhin. He was far better-looking than in the outdated family portrait in the living room where I first saw him, the one where his conservative hairstyle, school uniform, and studious expression gave him the look of one of those dorky people in the Young Professionals Club I remembered from high school, the types who were seventeen going on thirty-five.

But at twenty-eight, Takuya was quite the stunner, the kind of manwho, if I'd seen him on the train, I would have had to keep from staring at so as not to be too obvious—unlike the people who gawked at me, albeit for quite different reasons.

I tried to make my gaze as unobtrusive as possible, while still taking in the scenery.

Takuya's hair was a natural black, not dyed cinnamon or tangerine like so many of the young people in Tokyo, and it hung thick and silky below his collar. His smile was friendly, his nearly black eyes warm, his demeanor easygoing. This was made all the more attractive because I knew how exhausted he must have been from his long trip and how overwhelming it had to be to return home after two years overseas. I'd been the sweaty Saint Bernard cooped up much too long in her carrier when I first arrived in Tokyo, after enduring a ten-hour ride in an airborne sardine can. And the heaviness of jet lag weighed down my neck and shoulders like a sack of bricks. Yet Takuya seemed composed, relaxed.

Once he got settled and I sat down with him and his parents at the family's dining-room table—a setting of fancy take-out sushi and a Domino's squid-and-corn deluxe pizza worthy of a state dinner—Mrs. Kubota finally introduced me. "Celeste Duncan-san," she said.

Takuya extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Celeste."

Shaking hands, I smiled, but felt nervous. It had only been six weeks since I left San Jose for Tokyo and my Japanese was poor, though I had just started taking free lessons from a teacher named Mariko who, with her penchant for English swear words, was unusual to say the least. I'd asked her what I could say in Japanese to welcome Takuya home so I would make a good impression. In my mind I carefully went over the phrase she taught me. I was ready. I took a breath, and in a slow and clear voice said, "Takuya-san, kekkon shimasen ka."


Each member of the Kubota family sat frozen, and the uncomfortable quiet lasted much too long.

I turned to see that Mrs. Kubota's expression was not unlike the one she'd exhibited when I walked into her living room wearing toilet slippers—one of abject horror. I waited for her to say one of the few English phrases she had mastered, "Not good, not good," but she didn't utter a word. Still, I seemed to have done it again, committed another culturalfaux pas. I yearned to turn into a potato bug—to curl up into a ball and have someone step on me to put me out of my misery.

What on earth did I say? Was my pronunciation so poor that it came out plain wrong? I knew by now how easy it was in Japanese to leave out a syllable and completely change the meaning of a word. Mariko had warned me about that. If you were sick and needed to go to the hospital, but asked to be taken to the biyin instead of the byin, you'd wind up at the beauty parlor. The crunchy yellow pickle slices I liked that Mrs. Kubota served were called oshinko, but leave out that n and you'd get something close to oshikko, which was what kids said when they needed to pee. I was relieved to know that I at least hadn't said penis—chimpo—which was one of the first words Mariko had taught me when she explained (without being asked) about the differences in sexual performance techniques she'd noticed between Japanese and American men.

The lugubrious atmosphere at the Kubota dinner table began to dissipate at the sound of Takuya's laughter. His father smiled, but Mrs. Kubota remained repulsed.

"Did I pronounce something wrong?" I asked.

"No, Celeste," Takuya said, his eyes shining. "You said perfectly."

"Said what?"

Takuya could not stop laughing. By then Mrs. Kubota had left the room. Mr. Kubota drank the remainder of beer from his glass. Takuya put his hand on his chest, giving me an earnest, adorable look. "You asking me very important question, Celeste," he said in his slightly cracked English. "I will have to think hard about my answering."

"Question? It wasn't supposed to be a question." I found his teasing endearing, even though at the same time I wanted to scream, What the hell did I say? I looked straight into his beautiful face. "Takuya-san, what did I say to you?"

He smiled. "You asked me to marry you."

My first reaction was to laugh, then curse Mariko, but neither seemed appropriate. I turned to Mrs. Kubota, who had come back to the dining room with another beer for her husband and still appeared greatly flummoxed. "I'm sorry, Takuya-san. And please tell your mother that I was told by my Japanese teacher that I was saying, 'Welcome home and nice to meet you.'"

Takuya laughed. "What kind of Japanese teacher is that?"

"One who seems to want to get me into trouble," I said. "Sumimasen," I apologized to Mrs. Kubota, which I knew for sure meant "I'm sorry."

After an explanation from Takuya, Mrs. Kubota seemed to regain some of her composure.

"She say it hard to believe that a Japanese teacher would do that," Takuya said.

"Tell her I feel the same," I grumbled, wondering about the best way I could pay back Mariko.

Although Takuya seemed to have made it clear to his mother the reason for my mistake, I sensed a continuing stiffness from her throughout dinner. When I tried to catch her glance, to give her an apologetic smile, she would turn her head the other way.

With this latest development I knew that the surest way to receive another black mark on the Kubota homestay test would be if my secret was discovered: that I harbored incestuous feelings toward my homestay brother.

But I needed to keep on my toes and hope that I would be allowed to continue to stay with the Kubotas. Because I wasn't in Japan on a lark to study Japanese, or Zen, or the tea ceremony, or even to conduct research on the sexual habits of Japanese males. I was here on an important journey: to search for a long-lost relative, who could possibly tell me the identity of my father, and to fulfill an important family obligation.

And for someone who didn't have any family, this was a unique opportunity.

LOVE IN TRANSLATION. Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga received her MFA in writing from University of San Francisco, and her short stories have appeared in a variety of publications. She lives in San Francisco, California, with her Japanese-born surfer-dude/musician husband and their cat Meow.

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Love in Translation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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harstan More than 1 year ago
Thirty three year old Celeste Duncan extrapolates her present into the future and what she sees is ennui. She needs a change with her job and with her sort of boyfriend, but the wannabe singer fears taking the first step professionally or personally. However, Celeste receives an odd phone call and a box arrives filled with heirlooms; clues to the unknown father she never met. On a whim based on these new items being omens, she flies from San Jose to Japan in a ten hour airborne sardine can flight to meet her father. When she meets her English-speaking homestay "brother" Takuya she wants to kiss him senseless, but holds in check the desire. He helps her follow the clues especially with translating Japanese into English. As they travel across Japan, Celeste finds she is falling in love with her twenty-eight tears old guide, but his mom has his former girlfriend in mind for a daughter-in-law. As the trek increasingly looks futile, a despondent Celeste wonders if it is time to return the land of boredom. This is a fun yet profound tale due to the lead female who uses self deprecating amusing metaphors to describe her despondency over her life back in the States and her seeming failures in Japan. The story line is character driven as the audience will enjoy Celeste's fumbling with the culture starting with her practiced words in Japanese that she thought meant thank you for welcoming her, but instead her teacher tricked her and she proposed. Fans will enjoy An American in Japan falling in love with her homestay brother, the culture and the people as she searches for her biological father. Harriet Klausner