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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Updated: Feb 12, 2019


This was a mostly disappointing read. I knew going in that A Tale for the Time Being alternated between the perspectives of Nao, a 16-year-old girl living in Tokyo, and Ruth, a frustrated author tucked away on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia—but I wasn't quite prepared for the drastic disparity, in terms of writing quality and storytelling, between Nao's and Ruth's respective sections of the book.


The story begins when Ruth discovers a plastic bag containing Nao's diary washed up on a local beach, which is a promising enough set-up. Nao's diary entries—which chronicle her father's unemployment and suicide attempts, as well as her own persecution at the hands of some particularly cruel classmates—capture the voice, moods, and anxieties of a flesh-and-blood teenager in ways that are often endearing and at times searingly painful. In contrast, the Ruth sections often fall flat (and with a resounding thud). Not only do Ruth's concerns—an unfinished memoir, her island's occasional power outages, her husband's blandly irksome cat—feel petty and trivial compared to Nao's more pressing problems, but these chapters are also bloated with unnecessary and tedious details that drag the whole novel down. It’s a slog, and when Ozeki does attempt to create real moments of conflict and human intrigue (between, for example, Ruth and her husband), the dialogue feels awkward and the drama unearned. 

The book's biggest failure, however, is its botched attempt to tie Nao's and Ruth's stories together. Instead of providing a reasonable resolution to the mystery laid out at the start of the novel, Ozeki offers readers a far-fetched explanation through a series of improbable dream sequences and frustrating information dumps—all while trying to tackle topics that range from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami to Zen Buddhism to 9/11. It's a mess even with the multiple explanatory appendices tacked onto the end of the book.

Ultimately, Nao's voice is the lone bright spot in an otherwise muddled puzzle-box of a novel that face-plants when it tries to stick the landing.