DREAMING WATER concerns the relationship between 62-year-old Cate and her only daughter Hana. Hana is dying of Werner's disease, a genetic disorder that causes premature aging and early death. When the book opens, Hana's beloved father Max has been dead three years. All that Cate and Hana have are each other, and the pathos of their knowledge that Hana will certainly precede her mother in death provides the main (dare I say only?) conflict in this book.
The first half of the book consists of short chapters in Cate and Hana's alternating first person viewpoints. The course of the disease is presented in memories of the characters: the innumerable tests as a teenager when Hana failed to reach five feet tall, the suspicion of Werner's, the unmistakable symptoms showing up when Hana was only 23. Hana is 38 now and looks 90. She is bent, frail, thin, white-haired and slow moving. Cate, her mother, looks after her tenderly, and Hana is appreciative of it every day.
Hana remembers her girlhood friend Laura with special fondness. Laura has always been pretty, successful and devoted to her friend Hana. Even though Laura moved to New York, married and became a lawyer, they're still close. Hana is godmother to Laura's two girls, Josephine and Camille. They haven't seen each other in 10 years. Hana resists Laura's suggestion on the phone that she come for a visit. She worries that her goddaughters will be alarmed by her appearance, that she doesn't have the energy to face this.
But Laura's life is not all that perfect. Her husband has left her. Josephine, her 13 year old, is belligerent and pimply, and we learn that she doesn't fit in and resents her pretty, easygoing sister and her workaholic mother. Laura decides to visit Hana, without her permission, and shows up in the driveway with the two girls. Laura sees Hana's young self in Hana's eyes, despite the wrinkled face and white hair, and Hana is delighted to see her old friend. Josephine learns that her godmother is a cool person despite her appearance. Cate is grateful for the new life in the house, grateful for Laura's loyalty.
This is Ms. Tsukiyama's first novel set in contemporary America. In my opinion, it isn't as good as THE SAMURAI'S GARDEN, which took place in China and Japan. The writing, while precise, is uninventive. In a book largely concerned with feelings, I expect the author to come up with a better way to express it than "A sharp wave of fill-in-the-emotion moved through me." The three viewpoints of Cate, Hana, and Josephine aren't sufficiently different from each other. All of the characters, even teenaged Josephine, are intuitive, reasonable and kind. Sure, Josie has her moments --- baiting her younger sister, sniping at her mother. But the conflicts in the novel seem shallow. For instance, when Laura tells Hana about her troubled marriage, she explains, "In the beginning of our marriage, we couldn't stand to be away from each other. But in the past few years, there were days we barely exchanged more than ten words." Hana assures Laura that she's not a failure just because her marriage ended, and Laura is comforted. And that's all there is to it.
The symbolism in this novel is handled subtly and well. DREAMING WATER, the title, refers to the Hana's father Max's longing for the ocean. It comes partly from his being interned at Heart Mountain, a Japanese American camp, as a child in WWII. And the premise is certainly interesting, and moving. But in the end, I wanted more.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011