‘The Favorites’ by Mary Yukari Waters

True fluency in two cultures is a privilege -- and a burden -- granted to few. Mary Yukari Waters is one of these. Her Irish American father met and married her mother in Kyoto, Japan, where Waters spent her early years. At age 9, she moved with her parents to California, where she still lives, while remaining close to her Kyoto relatives. Strikingly Caucasian-looking to the Japanese, more Japanese at heart than Americans suspect, Waters is unusually able to explain them to each other.

Six years ago, Waters published “The Laws of Evening,” a collection of quiet, precise stories that brought the submerged trauma of postwar Japan to agonized life. Each story was an intimate ink drawing, expressing volumes of pain and stubborn hope with a few eloquent strokes. They were exquisite, and complete in themselves, but to Waters, it seems, they were just a sketchbook.

“The Favorites,” her first novel, borrows liberally from many of the stories, repeating images and characters in a larger format, one perhaps not as well-suited to her minimal style.

The novel’s first half is an expanded revision of Waters’ semiautobiographical story “The Way Love Works.” In the summer of 1978, 14-year-old Sarah Rexford and her mother, Yoko, arrive in Kyoto from California for an extended visit with Sarah’s sprightly grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi.

After five years of expatriate unease, Yoko has returned to her natural element, and Sarah watches in wonder as her mother reclaims her place as charismatic “queen bee” of the neighborhood and apple of her mother’s eye. Sarah, used to rolling her adolescent eyes at Yoko’s cultural gaffes at home, is startled at the pleasure she now takes in her mother’s reflected glory.

Across the lane live the Asakis, whose elderly matriarch is Mrs. Kobayashi’s sister-in-law. Within a few pages we are made privy to the emotional knot at the center of the family: Mrs. Asaki’s daughter Masako, whom Sarah has always known as Yoko’s placid cousin, is really Yoko’s little sister, adopted by Mrs. Asaki as an infant. The truth is carefully ignored by all parties, and Sarah rapidly learns not to cross the invisible boundaries between her mother’s family and Masako. Coming of age in this family means mastering the “forward-thinking game,” considering widening rings of emotional consequence before making a move in any direction. “Are all Japanese families like this?” Sarah asks incredulously. “Probably not,” her grandmother replies.

Waters has a way with physical details -- the “feathery weeds” of television antennae, an adobe wall’s “braille of pebbles and straw,” the “litmus hues” of hydrangea -- that make the old neighborhood vivid in its fading traditions and encroaching modernity. The lanes of the silk weavers’ quarter echo with the racket of wooden looms, their noise, as Yoko tells Sarah, a sure sign of Japan’s surging economy.

Waters is also deft with the cultural contrasts that have become cliché at the hands of western Japanophiles. “It’s like grape juice compared to wine,” Yoko explains to Sarah. “People like us, we keep our feelings inside and let them ferment -- till the happy and the sad and the good and bad get all mixed together so we can’t tell them apart.”

Fermented feelings may be richer than the fizzy American variety, but they are harder to access. Waters’ keen eye falters when it comes to emotional detail.

The novel’s central premise -- that a mother’s fierce love for her favorite is both powerfully sustaining and painfully exclusive -- feels oddly obvious when overlaid with the aesthetic and interpersonal intricacies of the setting.

A sudden death midway through the book is largely unexamined, Mrs. Kobayashi’s reconciliation with Masako abrupt and somewhat mawkish. Waters punts the question of Yoko’s shocking decision to marry a foreigner and its impact on her favorite-child status. “It bothered Sarah that she knew nothing about the most intense and painful time in the women’s relationship.” It bothers us too.

But perhaps this is American-style prurience. Waters’ women are distinct and original: “flamelike” Yoko, Masako with her perpetually pleasant “outside face,” Mrs. Kobayashi protecting a core of passion “like a barnacle,” Mrs. Asaki strategically plotting her course toward a secure but increasingly isolated old age. All of them share the same quiet certainty of Waters’ stories: that the force of life is greater than any obstacle in its path.

If Waters can combine such sustained and well-drawn characters with the emotional subtlety of her shorter work, her next novel will be stunning.

Nimura is a New York-based critic whose work has appeared in Newsday and the Washington Post.