Norwegian Wood is, of course, a Beatles song, the opening lyric of which is "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." The song itself, as well as the idea presented in its lyric of first love and the stinging memory thereof, are two of the major themes of the novel. The novel asks us to try to understand the dangers of taking love for granted; of assuming that there will always be time to work out problems; of waiting on one love at the expense of the possibility of another.
Such are the issues our narrator Toru Watanabe, a 19-year-old Tokyo college student, deals with. The year is 1969, and one day on the train, Toru runs into Naoko — the ex-girlfriend of Toru's best friend in high school, who had mysteriously killed himself. Toru and Naoko begin seeing each other once a week, and soon, their feelings intensify. But are the feelings genuine, or is Naoko simply using Toru as a stand-in for her dead boyfriend?
Meanwhile, Toru meets the flighty, but fascinating Midori, and begins seeing her regularly, as well. Such is Toru's dilemma: Whom should he choose? Or, is the answer neither: Should he continue going out with his friend Nagasawa, getting drunk and sleeping with slutty girls? At one point, he wonders aloud, "What if there were a deux ex machina in real life?" In other words, why couldn't life be simple like a Greek drama in which the resolution to any problem is simply a god's intervention.
This book is loaded with difficult questions. And sex. Lots and lots of sex. Indeed, Norwegian Wood is blurbed as "the most erotic of Murakami's novels." So, if you're not into all those coming-of-age, difficult life questions, there that to keep you interested, anyway.
But it is a quick, fluid read, and one I really enjoyed. This is the first time I've read Murakami, and while I understand that Norwegian Wood isn't the best representative of his oeuvre, it does seem a good introduction to both his style, which is as clear and sharp as any writer I've ever read, and also his acumen as a storyteller. This is the kind of novel you read in hundred-page chunks, and is over before you know it. How did it go that fast? What did that all mean?