Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel’s title points to its central image, the floating world. The family literally “floats” from place to place without setting down firm roots. They are, therefore, more “rooted” to one another than to any place, which makes the fact of Mariko’s infidelity more disturbing than Olivia Ann admits. The stable love between Olivia Ann and Charlie-O balances her mother’s lukewarm bond with him, and the closeness between Olivia Ann and her siblings is unconditional. Obasan both disrupts and cements the family relationships. She is a mercurial threat, a reminder that all may not be as it seems and that stability could end at any time. Even after her death, Olivia Ann feels “itchy,” as if Obasan’s soul has somehow come to roost within Olivia’s body.

The Japanese term for “floating world” is ukiyo-e, which refers to the Japanese concept of a nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment, and drink, and each of those descriptors functions in the novel. Evening escapades and descriptions of the night are common in the book. The book is pleasurable reading because it nostalgically describes a pleasant childhood, one abounding in good humor, love, and, for the most part, enjoyable experiences. The characters both entertain one another and experience life with wide-eyed wonder, as though things they observe are being staged merely for their delight. An episode of heavy drinking during a novelist’s birthday party in Arkansas...

(The entire section is 453 words.)