A Tale for the Time Being Summary and Study Guide

Ruth L. Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being

  • 64-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 36 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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A Tale for the Time Being Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 64-page guide for “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth L. Ozeki includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 36 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Interconnectedness of Time and Reading, Writing, and the Power of Literature.

Plot Summary

A Tale for the Time Being is a 2013 work of literary fiction written by Japanese-American novelist Ruth Ozeki. Told in four parts, the book goes back and forth between the stories of two protagonists: sixteen-year-old Naoko “Nao” Yasutani, who is writing about her life in Tokyo during the early 2000s, and Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist living on an island off the coast of Western Canada. Ruth finds Nao’s diary on the beach shortly after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes increasingly fixated on tracking down Nao and her family, and the two writers’ stories begin to come together in surprising ways.

Nao begins writing her diary after she and her family have been living in Tokyo for about a year. Before returning to Japan, Nao and her parents lived in Sunnydale, California where her dad worked for a software company. After her dad is laid off and they lose their family savings in the stock market crash, the Yasutani family returns to their native city of Tokyo. Nao is very unhappy in Tokyo as she identifies more as American than as Japanese. At school, her classmates bully her mercilessly for being a transfer student. They pinch and scratch her, leaving scars all over her body. When they tire of physical torture, they begin to shun her completely and even go as far as to stage a fake funeral for her. Nao not only has to deal with her classmates’ physical and psychological abuse, but she also has to deal with problems at home. Her dad feels so ashamed of losing the family’s savings and being unable to find work that he eventually tries to commit suicide.

Nao’s life begins to get better when her great-grandmother, Jiko Yasutani, a Buddhist nun, comes to visit their family in Tokyo and offers to let Nao stay with her at her temple in Northern Japan during summer vacation. Jiko teaches Nao about the principles of Zen Buddhism and encourages her to practice zazen, the Zen Buddhist art of meditation, to help her cope with her anger and sadness over her classmates’ bullying and her dad’s suicide attempts. Jiko also tells Nao about her son, Haruki, for whom Nao’s dad—Haruki #2—was named. Haruki #1 was a kamikaze pilot who died in World War II; he was forced to become a soldier even though he did not believe in the war. Jiko became a Buddhist nun to help her cope with her grief over the fact that her son was forced to commit suicide in the war.

When Nao gets back to Tokyo in the fall, however, her story takes a darker turn. Her classmates attack her in the bathroom, attempt to rape her, and put a video of the assault online. Soon after, Nao finds her dad unconscious on the bathroom floor after he tries to kill himself by taking too many sleeping pills. After these events, Nao drops out of school and begins spending her days with a woman named Babette, who works as a waitress in a cosplay café. Babette recruits Nao to join the escort service she runs for wealthy businessmen. She begins to send Nao on dates with older men who take her to hotels to have sex with her. Nao soon becomes so depressed by the state of her life that she becomes suicidal like her dad. One day, after a brutal encounter with a client, Nao learns that her dad is going to try to kill himself again and that Jiko is dying. She tells the reader that she feels completely invisible and alone, and then her diary ends.

As Ruth reads about Nao’s life in Tokyo, she tries to track down the Yasutani family but can find almost nothing about them on the Internet. Although she does not want to get distracted from her own writing, she soon becomes as involved in Nao’s story as if it were one of her own novels. When she gets to the end of Nao’s diary, Ruth becomes deeply concerned about Nao’s fate but realizes that she can’t do anything to help her because Nao’s story has taken place in the past. One night, however, she has a dream that she meets Nao’s dad in Tokyo right before he is going to kill himself and convinces him not to commit suicide for his daughter’s sake. She tells him that Nao is contemplating suicide herself and has gone to see Jiko at the temple before she dies.

After her dream, Ruth discovers that the diary now contains more pages and that Nao’s story continues. Nao tells the reader about how her dad meets her at Jiko’s temple and goes with her to Jiko’s deathbed. Before dying, Jiko writes the Japanese character “to live” on a piece of paper—a message to her grandson and great-granddaughter to embrace life rather than committing suicide. After Jiko’s death, Nao and her dad begin to confide in each other and each find a new purpose in life; her dad starts working on computer programming again and Nao resolves to start a new writing project—a biography about her incredible great-grandmother Jiko.

Although Ruth does not fully understand what has happened, she comes to believe that she was able to have a positive effect on the ending of Nao’s story through her dream. The novel ends with an epilogue written from Ruth to Nao, asking her to get in touch with her if she ever decides she wants to be found.

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Chapters 1-4