Plum Wine starts with an interesting premise: a young American woman teaching in Japan in the 1960s loses her closest Japanese friend and inherits a collection of homemade plum wine and pages of writing in kanji, which she can’t read. Why did her friend leave her this? How did she die? What mysteries are contained in these papers? The American, Barbara, comes to realize that the papers are the first writings of the year by her friend and her friend’s mother, and there’s one for each year going back to the 1930s, skipping a few years during World War II. She also comes to understand that her friend survived Hiroshima. Interesting!
However, the story fails to deliver on this idea. The main focus of the plot is Barbara’s relationship with a Japanese man, Seiji. Seiji, who knew the dead friend, translates sections of the writing for Barbara. From the beginning, Barbara suspects that Seiji is hiding something about the writing, and she even gets some of the pages translated by other people. But she doesn’t continue to get these translations because she fears… hurting Seiji’s feelings? Many of her other acquaintances warn her to stay away from Seiji, but instead she gives him all the wine and the writing. Unsurprisingly, he betrays this trust and actually destroys a lot of the writing.
It's not clear from the text exactly why Barbara feels so drawn to Seiji and places so much trust in him. Maybe she’s lonely and looking for some connection, but she has other acquaintances that reach out to her after her friend’s death, and she either avoids them or hides large parts of herself from them without explanation. It seems likely that it’s mostly about the sex, but since this all happens off-screen, the reader isn’t really let in to that passion. We’re told that Barbara feels passionate toward Seiji, but she doesn’t seem to understand anything about him, his emotions, or his motivations. So her repeated and increased trust in him, despite many alarm bells, feels misplaced.
Barbara talks a lot about wanting to know more about her friend’s life, and we realize that she knew so little about it, it’s hard to imagine that they were actually even friends. She didn’t know about the woman’s daughter, for example, who had died only about a year before Barbara met her. She didn’t know she was a Hiroshima survivor, or that she knew Seiji’s family, or really anything else. So what was that friendship based on?
Also, I was kind of shocked that Barbara didn’t think twice about opening and drinking the wine she inherited, which her friend had saved unopened for decades. No hesitation about drinking the last of this wine that will ever exist, alone and in a bad mood or casually with Seiji. Really?
The author includes some really engaging detail about life in Japan at this time and about living in Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Barbara remains purposefully ignorant of the ongoing Vietnam War, and doesn’t seem particularly informed about World War II, aside from her America-based memories. Because of this, the most interesting character is Rie, a young Japanese woman from a low caste who survived the bomb, is politically involved, wants to tell her and her father’s story, and works at the American Air Force base rebuilding the faces of dead soldiers from Vietnam before their bodies are shipped home to the US. If the story had followed Rie more closely, I think I would have found it much more interesting.
Instead, the narrative sticks close to Barbara, who’s biggest conflict is whether she should continue to allow Seiji to translate these invaluable manuscripts slowly, dishonestly, and entirely at his convenience instead of just handing them all over to literally anyone else she’s met in Japan and having them all done at once. I was never convinced by her reasoning, and so most of the plot felt like it had a huge hole. Even so, those glimpses into Japanese life at this time—balanced between traditional social structures and the recent shame of World War II—were enough to keep me reading through to the end.
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