The inside cover of Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is extremely misleading. I don’t think I usually put a lot of faith in the short descriptions that live on the insides or backs of books, so I guess normally this wouldn’t have bothered me, but I received Breasts and Eggs as a gift and knew only one thing about it when I unwrapped it: the book had been featured on a very short list of recent stellar stories that contained asexual protagonists. So maybe that’s why I actually read the inside cover, which is short and begins by saying “Breasts and Eggs tells the story of three women: thirty-year-old Natsuko, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter, Midoriko…” but really this book is Natsuko’s story and the rest of the blurb isn’t wrong so much as incredibly incomplete, but not just in the way that a short synopsis could never capture the whole of a story, but in the way that it really seems to me to miss the entire heart and weight of this book.
Breasts and Eggs is divided into two parts, Book One and Book Two and it took me almost the whole of reading it to realize how appropriately the title aligns with that division. But also, both parts feel very distinct from each other.
In Book One, Natsuko is welcoming her sister and niece into her home in Tokyo for a few days. Her older sister, Makiko, is obsessed with getting breast implants and plans to visit clinics around Tokyo. Makiko’s daughter and Natsuko’s niece, Midoriko, refuses to speak at home to her mother and continues and extends this habit to Natsuko and her home. More than anything, Book One feels like a way to gain insight into Natsuko’s life and childhood and how her personal history has shaped her own choices as well as how Makiko and Midoriko impact her life. A hopeful writer, Natsuko has been struggling to live on her own in Tokyo for years. She and Makiko had grown up in Osaka in poverty. Their single mother and their grandmother both passed away from cancer while the girls were young and Makiko has been working forever as a hostess in a bar, even as she passes an age where that kind of work seems viable, all while raising Natsuko and then her own daughter as a single mother. Told from Natsuko’s perspective, we get very little insight into Makiko’s thoughts or feelings, or why she might be so obsessed with breast implants. We are afforded glimpses into Midoriko’s thoughts through her journal entries which are filled with angst and confusion at her own body, growing up, and the struggles she and her mom face. Book One does several things beautifully. It captures the dynamics of family so well, finding the rhythm of sisters who love each other deeply but who have little in common any longer. It also reflects on the dynamics of mother/daughter relationships, the gaps that appear there naturally and those that appear from outside forces like death and poverty, as well as finding space to describe other kinds of familial relationships that can almost fill and restore those gaps. The final task Book One does is to discreetly, almost in the background of everything happening between Natsuko, Makiko, and Midoriko, set us up to understand Natsuko’s relationship to her work as a writer. At this point, she hasn’t published anything and doesn’t feel comfortable calling herself a writer, exhibiting all the self-consciousness of creatives who haven’t reached the milestones they consider markers of success. Book One ends in an emotional clash between mother and daughter and we get our first glimpse of how Natsuko is very much a witness to others throughout her life.
Book Two takes us about 8 years into the future. Natsuko has been published and is now working on a second novel and writing regularly. Despite this, she remains uncomfortable calling herself or allowing others to call her a writer, always citing that the one book she has published was several years ago. But she has promise and a voice for sure. Book Two takes us through Natsuko’s life, meeting with casual acquaintances, her editor, and checking in with Makiko and Midoriko (who is now in college, radiating the brightness of youth). Throughout these moments, Natsuko seems distant and fading, some kind of dissatisfaction with herself and her life pulsing through all her interactions. We learn, early in Book Two, why she is alone. That her first relationship ended not for lack of love but for lack of sexual appetite on Natsuko’s part. Thus, Natsuko is alone, and the loneliness is palpable. The inside cover of Breasts and Eggs leaves the description of this book at Natsuko confronting “Anxieties about growing old alone.” And while that basic summation begins the story, it certainly doesn’t grasp the full feeling of Book Two. Alongside the confusion about her sexuality, this aloneness builds in Natsuko an obsession, much like her sister’s when it came to breast implants, with conceiving a child and sets her on a journey of research and learning about donor conception, a subject apparently still very taboo in Japan. Rather than focus on her new book, which remains a constant torment in the background of Book Two, Natsuko meets person after person, some she has known and some met newly, who illuminate various ideas of parenthood and childhood and the morality and realities of both. Rather than saying this is a book about “the anxieties of growing alone”, I think it would have been more honest to say this is a book that challenges what it means to live and to bring life into the world and how painful all of it can be.
Natsuko is a very giving protagonist. In Kawakami’s hands, she is a generous listener, allowing us as the reader long monologues from a range of perspectives that all vary wildly. Even when Natsuko doesn’t understand (with her sister’s breast implants), disagrees (with those sharing their opinions at Aizawa’s first conference), or finds herself convicted in a less than happy way (with Yuriko’s declarations), Natsuko still listens to every word, a witness to others constantly. In that way, Natsuko’s own confusion about herself, her desires, her wants became more confused for me as a reader, her voice is almost lost in the shuffle of what we are allowed to witness alongside her. But that also feels very real. A person who is alone and made to feel even more alone via their lifestyle (whether it’s a choice or not), would probably face insurmountable confusion. It’s actually harder to believe that Natsuko would remain such a caring and open person in the face of all that.
I really enjoyed Breasts and Eggs for all the ways it forced me to think differently about having children, why we have them, why we don’t, and whether any and all of these “whys” really matter or if they are really just selfish ego-driven excuses that allow us to bring kids into this rather messed up world. I kind of did not like Breasts and Eggs for the way it made conceiving a child so central to this otherwise very creative person’s reality, seemingly just because she is a woman (this is a statement that simplifies the dynamic a lot, but I couldn’t shake it regardless). I have a three-year-old but before I had her I was convinced for a long time that I didn’t really care about having or really want children. Honestly, there was never a moment when I thought I really wanted to have kids either, but I married a person with whom I decided if we got pregnant, I would have the child. It was that simple a decision for me and I never felt strongly about it either way. Even now, though I love my daughter to pieces and think she is a brilliant bit of joy, I’ve always felt that I still would have had a good life without her which is, I think, a statement a lot of parents don’t really feel they can say, or they just don’t feel that way (I don’t know, I haven’t really shared that sentiment with a lot of other parents). Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a crappy parent, those feelings make me feel worse about it but most of the time, I just know that’s the reality of who I am. I could have not been a parent and been happy. I am a parent, and I am happy. I am also an artist, a sexual being, a woman, and so many other things that make me happy. And this book has made me wonder if that is a very, very selfish way of thinking about parenthood for so many reasons that I didn’t already wonder about before.
There are also a lot of aspects of personhood that Kawakami describes wonderfully. The confusion of your teenage body (especially as a woman), the strangeness of sexuality, hell, the strangeness of just being a physical body in the world trying to connect to others. All the sections when Kawakami dives into these feelings, sometimes through Midoriko’s journeys, sometimes through dreams, and sometimes just through Natsuko’s thoughts, are masterful. And as I mentioned before, the insightful monologues from the various folks in Natsuko’s life are also really intense, really fantastic insights into real considerations of how a broad spectrum of people might feel about life and living. But there are sections of the writing that are dull and sometimes the connections between these gorgeous moments were harder to get through than I would have liked. Ultimately, though, Breasts and Eggs was a convicting book for me, that made me feel hard and think deeply and was also enjoyable, and so I’d recommend it to anyone.