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What's Left of Me Is Yours

Review

What's Left of Me Is Yours

Set in modern-day Tokyo and inspired by a true crime story with complicated implications, WHAT’S LEFT OF ME IS YOURS is an instantly gripping and poignant debut novel.

Kicking off with a newspaper article about a shocking crime, Stephanie Scott introduces readers to the “wakaresaseya,” a member of a discrete industry focused on helping couples (or at least one half of a couple) initiate divorce proceedings. A wakaresaseya can either help a spouse catch their partner in the act or, in extreme circumstances, flirt with and seduce a partner to create evidence for a divorce. Here, we follow the case of a wakaresaseya gone off the rails as he does the unthinkable and falls in love with his mark. Or does he? Years later, all we know for sure is that a woman, Rina, has been murdered, a wakaresaseya named Kaitarō is imprisoned, and it is up to Rina’s daughter, Sumiko, to find out the truth about her mother’s affair and death.

Alternating timelines, Scott highlights first Sumiko’s discovery of Kaitarō and her mother’s death certificate, and then the beginnings of Rina and Kaitarō’s relationship. The Sumiko we meet is ambitious and intelligent, and though she has lived without her parents for many years, she has been raised dutifully and admirably by her beloved grandfather, Yoshi. It was Yoshi who first told her about her mother’s death in a car accident, and it is Yoshi’s home she is living in when she discovers that there is far more to the story than he has ever let on. Using both her own connections as a budding lawyer and Yoshi’s meticulous recordkeeping, Sumiko begins to examine the facts of her mother’s death, beginning with a 23-day-long videotaped “confession” from Kaitarō.

"...a gripping and instantly compelling story about love and loss and how they shape our lives.... This is a cleverly constructed, shrewd and beautiful novel with as much tension as heart, and plenty of worthy conversation starters about passion, deception and memory."

Scott carefully explains the Japanese legal system without minimizing it or turning her narrative into a textbook, laying bare for us the ways that the Japanese judicial system has both failed and protected Sumiko. She finds out that she is one of the “forgotten parties,” a labeling in which the families of victims are “forgotten” to protect the criminal defendants. Not only are forgotten parties not informed of court proceedings, they are even kept from knowing the outcome of sentencing or the perpetrator’s date of release. This is how Sumiko has avoided learning about her mother’s murder for so long, and, in brighter terms, how she was able to go on living her life without fixating on the past.

In alternating chapters, we meet a young Rina, trapped in a cold, loveless marriage and often overlooked not only by her husband, Satō, but also by the people around her. When Satō secretly approaches Kaitarō to seduce her, he inadvertently alters the course of their lives forever when Kaitarō sees something in Rina’s pictures: a quiet sturdiness, an elegant beauty and, just beyond it all, an intelligence that awakens something in him. He agrees to take the case, but he knows it will not be like his usual marks, and Satō’s snide remarks about his undesirable wife only fuel his curiosity.

Slowly but surely, Kaitarō follows Rina, learning her usual haunts, rhythms and routines. When he approaches her one day, she is so stunned to be noticed and flirted with that she hardly recognizes what is happening --- and that is when Kaitarō knows the job is too big. What follows is a whirlwind relationship, with Rina trying to uphold her marriage and values, and Kaitarō attempting to hold onto his job while allowing himself to experience something real after living as a sort of shapeshifter for so long. Scott envelops readers in their romance so tightly and intimately that you cannot even dream of questioning Kaitarō’s feelings for Rina. Yet how could a person love someone so strongly and still murder them?

WHAT’S LEFT OF ME IS YOURS is written with the air of a thriller, especially as you watch Rina and Kaitarō inch closer and closer to their tragic fates. But the alternating timelines, along with the power of memory, give the novel an added psychological edge as Sumiko pores over countless records, finding inconsistencies that make her wonder if justice actually has been served. As much as the book is about a violent crime and its decades-long ramifications, it is just as much about perception and the ways in which we can never really perceive someone wholly as we perceive ourselves. Rina and Kaitarō’s affair is a clear demonstration of this theme, as she does not realize his true profession until it is too late. But Sumiko, too, comes to realize that she has never really known the people around her, from her late mother to her beloved grandfather. Driving this theme is the double-edged sword of passion and possession and the question of where the line can be drawn, especially in affairs of the heart.

The novel is confidently written, and with good reason, as Scott first learned of a similar case in 2010. Pulled in by the combination of a love triangle, a covert industry set on tearing couples apart, and a murdered woman, she spent the next nine years conducting research for this book. She traveled through Japan, interviewed experts and common citizens alike, and was even awarded for her work in laying bare the Japanese judicial system. Americans familiar with an unbalanced system will be surprised to see the opposite in effect here, with the Japanese courts so perfectly rigid that there is little room for nuance, an equally imperfect system that Scott is careful not to discredit, even as she exposes its fault lines.

Scott’s keen eye for research is on full display, and every aspect of the culture --- from the landscape to the courts and even the public eye --- is rendered fully, respectfully and with an immersive quality that feels unparalleled. Add to that the breathtaking detail with which she describes both Tokyo and the Japanese coast, and you have a novel that doubles as a travelogue in all the best ways. And let’s not forget the food descriptions.

However, what makes WHAT’S LEFT OF ME IS YOURS a truly outstanding book is that Scott can do all of the above and still write a gripping and instantly compelling story about love and loss and how they shape our lives. Her prose is tight yet lyrical, atmospheric yet grounded, and her ability to unpack the ramifications of Rina’s affair long after it has ended speaks volumes for her capacity for compassion and emotional intelligence. This is a cleverly constructed, shrewd and beautiful novel with as much tension as heart, and plenty of worthy conversation starters about passion, deception and memory.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 25, 2020

What's Left of Me Is Yours
by Stephanie Scott

  • Publication Date: June 23, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385544707
  • ISBN-13: 9780385544702