A Trip to Kyoto with Muriel Barbery and Florentyna Leow (#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies)

One of my most recent Book Serendipity incidents was reading these two 139-page books about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often touring temples) at the same time. They’re also both from independent publishers, so I’m taking the opportunity to review them together for Read Indies month. The Barbery is also towards Marina Sofia’s casual French February challenge.


A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery (2020; 2021)

[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]

That Barbery is a Japanophile was clear from her whimsical The Writer’s Cats, which I reviewed for Novellas in November in 2021. Here she takes inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic of minimalist prose, melancholy walks in rainy gardens, and a mixture of legends and stoic Buddhist philosophy. Rose, the half-French, half-Japanese protagonist, is in Kyoto to hear the reading of the will made by her late father, Haru, a contemporary art dealer.

A 40-year-old botanist, Rose is adrift, her father’s death just the latest in a string of losses that have caused her to close off her heart. Her time in Kyoto, while she waits to meet with the lawyer, is a low-key cycle of visits to gardens and Buddhist temples, sake-soused meals, going to bed sad and tipsy, and waking up to rain and preparing to do it all over again. Her minder is Paul, a Belgian who was her father’s assistant. They initially find each other irritating, but are gradually drawn together as two damaged souls.

There are lovely descriptive passages, and the theme of the inescapability of suffering cannot be refuted. The universality of loss comes across in key quotes from Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke, respectively: “in this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers” and “A single rose is every rose.” Still, I somehow found this work both too subtle (the only vaguely relevant chapter-opening snippets of history or legend) and too obvious (“Everybody hurts” is hardly a groundbreaking message). This was my third novella by Barbery. Shall I carry on and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well?

With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.


How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow (2023)

On the face of it, this collection has quite a lot in common with Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons, from the same publisher: travel- and food-inspired essays that loop through some of the same experiences of loneliness and disorientation. The writers also have a similar background, with Leow a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Japan. She is able to pass for Japanese and so is experienced at code-switching as she moves from temple to jazz bar to teahouse and learns new dialects and accents.

For some years she made a living by leading tours she could never have afforded herself. Much as she loves Kyoto and its sights, she tired of the crowds and of seeing the same temples all the time. It took a stranger observing that she seemed unhappy in her work for her too realize it was time for a change.

This disillusionment and the end of her friendship with her female housemate are the main themes of this short book, especially in the six-part title essay. Interestingly, she describes the end of their relationship in the sort of terms that would generally be used for a romantic break-up, despondently querying what went wrong between them when they had been so happy picking and cooking the fruit from the persimmon tree outside their apartment window. Indeed, later on she cites the concept of a “romantic friendship.”

But I think what she was really mourning was the temporary nature of life. We’re nostalgic for golden times we can never get back. I think of parts of my early twenties like that. I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life now to go back in time (or maybe I would), but those periods will always glow in my memory.

My favourite essays were “Persimmons,” “A Bowl of Tea,” “A Rainy Day in Kyoto” and “Egg Love” – prove you care for someone by learning how they like their eggs. This wasn’t a particularly stand-out read for me, especially in comparison to the Powles, but I’d happily read more by Leow in the future.

A favourite passage:


To celebrate. To thank someone. To enjoy the scent of different incense. To listen to the rain. To view an autumn moon reflected on a pond outside. To watch snow blanket the garden. To hear the texture of that silence. To walk through freshly fallen snow before dawn on the way to the teahouse. To drink tea by candlelight. To remember someone. To bask in the light, the cool of early summer mornings. Because it is spring. Because the leaves are changing colour. Because it is autumn. Because the plum blossoms are out. Because the world is beautiful. Because why not?

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart will be published on 23 February. With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.

21 responses

  1. I rather loved A single rose’s subtlety. The elegance of the hedgehog is very different. I can’t decide whether you’d love it or hate it! Coincidentally, I’m reading another indie book with a French/Japanese protagonist set in Japan,The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapun (who is French).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog was free, so no worries if I end up not getting on with it.

      I recently read her Winter in Sokcho; review to come soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve just received my copy of How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart and as true-blue Japanophile, I can’t wait to read it. And thank you for tagging along with #FrenchFebruary! I am in two minds about Muriel Barbery – I’ve liked some of her stuff a lot, and some of it I find a bit banal. I haven’t read A Single Rose, but probably will because of its Japanese setting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A bridge between your Japan and French foci of recent months!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Like Marina, I’m in two minds about Barbery, and the less-keen mind is is in the ascendant. And I don’t feel convinced enough about either book to go to the trouble of sourcing them, I think. Not with so much already on the TBR list. Which is a shame, because I’m all in favour of supporting Indie publishers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not to worry, there are so many indie publishers and releases out there, you’re sure to find something on the shelf or at the library to tempt you. I’ll try to review a fair few more myself before the month is out.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I may have to read that Leow book… ;D

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Rebecca
    we suppose we would love the Barbery Book. Thanks for your review. Minimalistic aesthetics is what we like.
    Have a happy weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you admire that style, then it surely will be one for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart sounds fascinating. I like reading books with similar themes at the same time. I did it with three books on the Marsh Arabs of Iraq and it gives such a broad view

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read a load of books about Korean culture and Koreans or Korean Americans recently. Partly by accident and partly on purpose.


  7. I didn’t love The Elegance of the Hedgehog—it’s been years since I’ve read it, but I’m not sure it improves much on the fairly basic and unsurprising messaging of A Single Rose. The Leow sounds interesting though (especially the idea of a romantic friendship, something that I don’t think is much explored at all in contemporary writing!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah well, Hedgehog was free to me so I don’t mind if it goes back to a charity shop unread at some point.

      The only other time I remember reading about romantic friendship was in an essay in Jill Sisson Quinn’s collection Sign Here If You Exist. She cited the Ladies of Llangollen in that, too, so she was allowing for it to shade into sexual love.


      1. Yeah, and I think because of the way lesbian/queer history has been construed, “romantic friendship” is often assumed to be a euphemism for sexual love, or some version thereof. Whereas I think the romantic (but not necessarily sexual) side of friendship, especially female friendship—the potential intensity of affection and feeling there—is something that seems to get barely any airtime, maybe because it’s so difficult to pin down or discuss within our pre-existing frameworks of how different kinds of relationships “should” work.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I have wanted to read the Muriel Barbery since it came out, so thanks for the reminder to add to my ‘buy later’ list. It sounds lovely, I find Japan fascinating to read about it does sound different to Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is no criticism. Coincidentally I am currently reading How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart. I found the opening essay particularly moving about the loss of friendship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you continue to enjoy How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart. That lost friendship carries through several of the essays.


  9. Oh wow, that is a gorgeous passage! Time to make some tea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I could give you an excuse 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think I would like A Single Rose. Thanks for introducing me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pleased I could pique your interest 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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