The Situation: Toru and Kumiko Okada live a fairly mundane and normal life in suburban Japan where Kumiko works in the publishing business, and Toru is currently unemployed. Toru is not quite sure what he wants out of life or what he wants out of a career. Motivated by the disappearance of their cat, Noboru Wataya (which is also the name of Kumiko's bother, whom Toru can't stand), Kumiko enlists the help of a sort of psychic medium name Malta Kano. Both the disappearance of the cat and the initial meeting with Malta Kano seem to jump start the action of the novel and the interesting sequence of events that continue for Toru in the next few years or so.
The Problem: Yeah, the missing cat turns out to be the last thing Toru should have been worried about. On day Kumiko doesn't come home from work, and at some point Toru finds out that she never intends to. The even deeper problem that stems from this is that Toru is not sure if Kumiko is staying away of her volition or against her will. And either way, it is clear that Kumiko's family (who never thought much of Toru) are involved and know more of what is going on that they are willing to tell her husband. Also, Toru's investigation of Kumiko's disappearance causes a few unwanted confrontations with Noboru Wataya, a charismatic but inherently evil politician that seems to be in his rise to power. And as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Toru's quest is much more complicated that just a search for his estranged wife, and that it is about to yield a whole lot more than he ever thought.
Genre, Themes, History: I don't even know where to start in terms of genre. I know it is a novel, that much I can tell you. But I really don't feel prepared to go much deeper than that.
And the themes are incredibly varied and complex. Just to start, themes include water, war, travel, mind-reading, life/death, dreams and even politics. There is one part of the novel where it stops being Toru's story and we get a detailed account Lieutenant Mamiya and his time in the Japanese military during World War II. His story contains one of the most gruesome scenes I have ever read in any book, and yet I kept reading (you'll know it when you see it). Also, many of these strange characters that Toru comes in contact with end up having doubles or counterparts to other characters. Or the reader will realize that the collective pasts of two different characters link up in some weird yet unexplained way. It adds to the mystery of the novel, and also my unending confusion.
My Verdict: Although I didn't get it, I do want to try reading more of Murakami's stuff. Maybe I'll attempt one of his shorter novels (this one clocks in at a whopping 600+ pages in paperback, which also makes it a door stop) that was published more recently. I recommend it for anyone wishing to try something new and get a little bit outside of the typical contemporary fiction comfort zone.
Favorite Moment: When May Kasahara realizes all of the lengthy letters she has sent to Toru never made it. I just really love her reaction.
Favorite Character: Although she annoyed me at first, my favorite character ended up being May Kasahara. At first she came off to me as a bratty teenage girl who didn't want to go to school, but little bits of her are slowly revealed over the course of the book and she turns out to be refreshingly honest in a see of really cryptic characters.
Recommended Reading: I would have to go with something else I consider "out of the box" that most modern American readers wouldn't think to pick up, so I have decided to recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Great British humor coupled with time travel. Great time had by all.