It is impossible not to read title of Mieko Kawakami’s new novel Breasts and Eggs, with its unabashedly female take, without also hearing the the salacious and near homonymous “breasts and legs”, invoking as it does the male gaze and its frequent targets. Kawakami’s work, composed of two “books” separated by 10 years, is an extended exploration of the inner life of women; the theme of breasts appear as one character pursues augmentation surgery, and eggs are a recurring motif both as a foodstuff and in relation to fertility and procreation.
Beyond the linguistic sleight-of-hand of the title, the translators have a knack for wordplay which makes a non-Japanese speaker marvel at the process, and reinforces attention on the female:
I was wondering about the “men” in “menarche. Turns out it’s the same as the “men” in “menstruation.” It means “month,” which comes from “moon,” and has to do with women and their monthly cycle. Moon has all kinds of meanings. In addition to being the thing orbiting the earth, it can involve time, or tides, like the ebb and flow of the ocean. So, “menarche” has absolutely nothing to do with “men.” So why spell it that way? What happened to the “o”?
This musing comes from the journal of Midoriko, the niece of the main character Natsuko. In Book One, she is a disaffected teenager who is so frustrated with her mother she only communicates with her in writing, where we also see glimpses of her inner life via her journal excerpts. She and her mother, Makiko, travel to Tokyo and stay with Natsuko. The visit is prompted by Makiko’s desire to consult with various clinics on having breast augmentation surgery. More than just the shape of her breasts, she is dissatisfied with the color of the nipples and areolae. Although she might seem to be a typical candidate for the surgery, as a middle-aged postpartum woman working as a bar hostess, she is not looking for a partner so it appears this aesthetic concern is truly for herself. When they go to a bathhouse together, Makiko tells Natsuko about her attempts at areola bleaching, which leads the latter into self-reflection:
As a kid, whenever I saw the naked women in the magazines that the kids in the neighborhood got their hands on, or saw a grownup woman expose her body on TV, I guess on some level I thought that someday all those parts of me would fill out, too, and I would have a body just like them. Except that never happened. … I thought all women grew up to have that kind of body, that that’s not how things played out. People like pretty things. When you’re pretty, everybody wants to look at you, they want to touch you. I wanted that for myself.
It is particularly striking of Natsuko to notice this, as she watched both her mother and older sister take jobs requiring little more than charm and appearance as bar hostesses; only she has some skill (writing) that can bring her income.
Makiko and Natsuko’s mother died when the latter was in her early teens, and their grandmother who they had been living with died only two years later. With their father and grandfather long absent, they were keenly aware of the struggles of their single mother to care for them on a limited income. Makiko’s life echoes her mother’s, so Midoriko’s perspective is a contemporary contrast to the sisters’ memories of their childhoods.
I’m almost in middle school. That means three more years before I can get a job. But I don’t want just any job. I need a skill. My mom never got a skill. That’s why I need one. . . . It all started when she was riding on her bike, in that stupid purple dress she wears for work, the one with the gold fringe, when a boy from my class saw her and made fun of her in front of everybody. I wanted to be like shut up or I’ll make you shut up, but all I could do was laugh along. I laughed harder than anyone else, too. Then, when we were fighting, at the end, when she was mad but looked like she was about to cry, she shouted, “What can I do? We gotta eat, right?” That’s when I said it. It’s your fault for having me. I realize something after that, though. It’s not her fault she was born. I’ve already decided. I’m never having kids. No way.
In Book Two, Natsuko has become an established writer, whose next work is eagerly awaited by her editor and publisher; the emphasis in this section is more on eggs, as Natsuko also starts to contemplate having a child. Not only does she have her own mother and her sister as examples of single motherhood, she also meets a fascinating fellow author who notably showed up to receive a literary award in a buzz cut, with her baby in tow. What brings her musings about fertility and motherhood a further dimension is that she engages with a group of adults who were born from artificial insemination, and learns more about the perspective of growing up without one’s biological father, as well as regrets of the child in these scenarios. In deciding how to proceed, she hearkens back to Midoriko’s feelings towards her mother. Her agent/editor is also concerned that this is all a distraction from her work:
I’m trying to help you. You’ve got what it takes to be a great novelist. Don’t squander your gift. Everyone goes through times where they can’t write. The important thing is that you keep going. If you want to write, you have to make it your whole life. . . . How is having a kid going to help you? Get a grip. Kids. Do you know how boring you sound? Great writers, men and women alike, never have kids. When you write, there’s no room in your life for that. You have to go where your stories take you. You owe it to your writing.
Kawakami threads these themes of self-actualization, maternal purpose and responsibility, and the life of an artist in a way that reveals the texture of everyday life—the chance meetings that can result in commonplace and profound reflections—and is soul-stirring.