Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Europa Editions 2020)
Reviewed by Megan Foster
Three women in Japan wrestle with the nature of the body and the self.
Natsuko is a struggling writer when her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s teenage daughter, Midoriko, come to visit for a few days. Makiko has made the journey to Tokyo to explore affordable options for breast enhancements. Midoriko, who hasn’t spoken a word to her mother in six months, privately wrestles with her own changing body and turns to her journal for companionship. A climactic clash occurs between Makiko and Midorko before the two return home, and the narrative flashes forward in time ten years. Natsuko has managed to publish one collection of stories but, even more than her struggle to write a novel, wrestles with her desire to have a child. Without a partner, Natsuko seeks other possible means to fulfill her deepest wish to be a mother as she continues to grow older alone.
While a relatively quiet and straightforward read, Breasts and Eggs left me breathless. Mere sentences or gestures crescendo and transform the entire scene and its characters. Perhaps of all its themes, the novel delves most deeply into the nature of feminism and femininity, questioning what exactly makes a woman a woman. Kawakami describes various facets of the female body, outward and inward. These physical features, of course, are only the beginning of the nuanced depictions of womanhood that the novel explores. Though most of the novel is told through Natsuko’s eyes, Kawakami subtly shifts observations and conversations to women of varying ages which, overall, gives readers a broad scope of a woman’s entire life from puberty to death.
Earlier on in the novel we see snippets of the otherwise silent Midoriko’s diary, in which Midoriko pours her frustrations about growing from a girl into a young woman. Her confusion over her friends’ and her own changing body is only exacerbated by her mother’s behavior that she sees as a personal affront against her very existence. While Midoriko despises her own breasts growing in, her mom frequently talks on the phone about getting breast enhancements. “I stand nearby to listen. I hear everything. Ever since I had my daughter, she says…It’s always the same line about breastfeeding me. Idiot. So you want your body to be the way it used to be? Then why’d you even have me?” (113) When Midoriko finally confronts her mother in the teeny kitchen of Natsuko’s apartment, I practically held my breath. The scene itself, and the friction between Midoriko and her mother Makiko, implicitly tackles a major issue of feminism: that one woman’s femininity and freedoms should not come at the expense of another’s.
Much of the latter part of the novel focuses on Natsuko’s decision to conceive, despite her lack of a partner. The older she grows, the more desperate she becomes to resort to any means to have a baby. She looks more intently into sperm donors, though it’s not popular in Japan. Her research forces Natsuko to tread lightly when discussing the issue with people who might view her decisions as outrageous or foolish. Natsuko’s journey brings into question the difficulties a lot of women face, single or no, with successfully having a child. For many women trouble conceiving a child is an affront to their own identities. After all, for too many centuries in patriarchal, misogynistic societies, a woman’s ability to give birth was not just a mark of femininity but the definition itself of womanhood. Natsuko’s brave decision to have a child using unconventional methods marks a defining point in her life but also demonstrates that true femininity need not be defined by one’s society, and that there is no one single journey towards becoming a mother–or, for that matter, a woman.
Breasts and Eggs masterfully poses hard truths that women everyday, everywhere wrestle with. Is my body good enough? Am I good enough? What do people think of me? What kind of mother will I be? Am I turning into my mother? While feminism should be, at its core, a fight to prove that women are as valuable as men, we all know the conversation doesn’t and shouldn’t end there. Kawakami stares its female readers in the face and promises that no matter what your journey, it’s a worthy one. For that alone, her novel is well worth the read.
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