Nothomb exoticizes Japanese culture without succumbing to Orientalist stereotypes. The situations she refreshingly depicts reveal Amelie's education in the Japanese art of living…[a] spare, elegant novel
The New York Times
A darling of the French literary scene, Nothomb delivers a complex story of first love set in late 1980s and early '90s Tokyo. Amélie is a 21-year-old Belgian student studying Japanese in Tokyo when she begins tutoring Rinri, a sweet, shy and wealthy 20-year-old, in French. The relationship quickly evolves into a friendship and, soon after that, into romance. Rinri is a young soul who is easily swept up in his love for Amélie, and his charm is undeniable as he courts her, but Amélie wrestles with the classic situation: she loves spending time with Rinri, but she doesn't love him, and she cannot deny her need for independence. Nothomb thankfully forgoes the standard approach to passion and unrequited love, leading the reader to hope the adorable couple don't get married and instead find their own separate happiness. Nicely told, intimate and honest, the book depicts perfectly a nontraditional romance. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In Tokyo, a French teacher studying Japanese meets a Japanese man studying French, a relationship that at first delights them both but ultimately ends in separation. In an effort to learn Japanese, the narrator (named "Amelie Nothomb") figures the best strategy would be to give private French lessons. The only one who responds to her ad on the supermarket bulletin board is Rinri, a shy and self-contained young man whose French is atrocious but whose motivation is strong. They soon develop a bicultural force field of mutual attraction. While the presence of Americans is muted in the novel, the narrator skewers them each time they appear. Amy from Portland, for example, whines continually, and at a dinner party, "no matter what she had in her mouth, she looked as if she were chewing gum." The narrator is enamored with Tokyo and with all things Japanese, including Rinri, who becomes a tender lover yet remains a mysterious presence. Much of the novel consists of conversations between Amelie and Rinri, the early ones awkward and self-conscious, the later ones amusing and occasionally profound. Trying to get some perspective on the relationship, which has lured her more deeply into intimacy than she feels comfortable with, Amelie comments: "Our life as a couple resembled the water-filled mattress we slept on: outmoded, uncomfortable, and funny. Our bond consisted in sharing a moving sense of malaise." In one exhilarating passage Rinri invites Amelie to climb Mount Fuji with him, a physical act with deep symbolic significance to the Japanese because you can't be "truly Japanese" until you've made the ascent. Amelie finds the experience so intoxicating that she far outstrips Rinri, who comespuffing up hours after Amelie has arrived, an episode that provides insight into Amelie's later refusal to give up her independence. Nothomb succeeds in giving us an alternative but still charming vision of romantic love.