Review: Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa by Benjamin Constable

Title: Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa
Author: Benjamin Constable
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: June 4, 2013
Source: NetGalley

Synopsis (from back cover):

What writer Benjamin Constable needs is a real-life adventure wilder than his rampant imagination. And who better to shake up his comfortable Englishman-in-Paris routine than the enigmatic Tomomi “Butterfly” Ishikawa, who has just sent a cryptic suicide note?

She’s planted a slew of clues—in the pages of her journal, on the hard drive of her computer, tucked away in public places, under flowerpots, and behind statues. Heartbroken, confused, and accompanied by an imaginary cat, Ben embarks upon a scavenger hunt leading to charming and unexpected spaces, from the hidden alleys of Paris to the cobblestone streets of New York City.

But Butterfly’s posthumous messages are surprisingly well informed for the words of a dead person, and they’re full of confessions of a past darkened by insanity, betrayal, and murder. The treasures Ben is unearthing are installments of a gruesome memoir. Now he must draw a clear line between the real and surreal if he is to save himself, Butterfly, and what remains of their crazy and amazing friendship.

There’s a lot of quirkiness in this book. The main character, Ben, is named after the author. At one point, Ben has this odd fixation with having “the dead on his shoes” after visiting Ground Zero. There’s a non-talking, but quite communicative, imaginary cat who appears throughout. Then there’s an unusual friendship with Tomomi Ishikawa, who has a deeply tragic past, and puts Ben on a twisted sort of scavenger hunt all over Paris and New York.

Right around the time I started to wonder “why is Ben continuing on with this game?” or “okay, I think things are about to slow” a character would answer my question, or the author would change direction. The author certainly has the mind of a reader, and at times it felt like he was in my head.

Constable writes with a lot of attention to detail, especially the use of language. I enjoyed the more realistic portrayal of communicating in a non-native language, and the awkwardness that can result. The dialogue always felt very real, very natural, like overhearing a conversation. And Constable writes some amazing sentences! My favorite: “Now the room was empty and the hushed sound of a hundred people reading dissolved into a quieter silence.” 

This book was an adventure, to be sure. But I was left feeling sort of… toyed with. Ben would say these random, mundane things and I’d think, “What?! Is this going to be important? Will this have a deeper meaning?” I was on pins and needles so much of the time, but I’m not sure where it led. A few times I got downright angry, and toward the end I felt there were almost too many twists. When I finished, I was left with a kind of surreal, what-just-happened? feeling. And I’m not sure if I’m ticked off by it, or completely and utterly delighted!

Discussion questions for Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa are included at the end of the book, as well as a few “Enhance Your Book Club” ideas.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.

  • I love this review Monika! I think it’s great that this book messed with your mind 😉 It sounds like this would be a great book for a discussion.

    • YES, definitely a great discussion book. And you know, I’m glad I feel so torn about it. It’s nice to have a book challenge me like this, where it isn’t all nice and neat with the door perfectly shut at the end, you know?

  • Sounds intriguing! And I love the quote!

    • It really is intriguing! And oh, there are soooo many beautiful quotes like that one. His writing is wonderful!

  • Ooh, this one sounds intriguing. Maybe a little polarizing with lots of little details to pick through and discuss. Thanks for a great review, Monika!

    • The details drove me crazy (in a good way). I was starting to feel paranoid, ha! I think you’d enjoy it. 🙂

  • I’m on hold for this book at the library. Sometimes I get in the mood for a quirky story, something that keeps me a little off-balance, something I can’t predict, and this book certainly sounds like that kind of story. Thanks for your review! Can’t wait to give this one a try.

  • This really is a book that would be great to sit down and discuss, especially using the questions at the end. The great thing is, I think you could come up with 10 different responses to many of the questions and still be right. I love the quote you picked out and you’re so right about the dialogue feeling real.