the story behind the book

Jennifer Tseng’s ‘Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness’

david wilson for the boston globe

“I love the premise of someone in a mundane setting,” said Jennifer Tseng, “then a stranger walks in, and everything changes.” In Tseng’s debut novel, “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness,” that mundane setting is a library on a small island off the coast of New England, the someone a 40-something librarian, and the stranger a 17-year-old boy.

What follows is a love story as complicated as you might imagine. And even though the subject matter had the potential to be scandalous, Tseng said, her own colleagues at a library on Martha’s Vineyard were supportive. A relative newcomer to the island, the California native said she peppered fellow librarians with questions — “If two people were going to have a secret affair where would they go?” — and that their help changed the course of the book.

“I got to know people from talking about the book with them,” Tseng said, adding that one of the ideas behind the novel grew from wondering, just as she was beginning to feel a sense of belonging in the town, “What if I were to do something to lose that trust that I’ve earned slowly over the years? What would the implications be?”


One thing she learned was that, despite or perhaps because of the secrets a small island can hold, Vineyarders value a peaceful, respectful co-existence. “I think of it as ship where when you make waves everyone feels it,” she said, “and if it capsizes we’re all going to go down, so you kind of tread carefully.”

Tseng will read from “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” twice this week: Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Newtonville Books, 10 Langley Road, Newton, and Thursday at 7 p.m. at Papercuts JP, 5 Green St., Jamaica Plain.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at