By Mako Yoshikawa

Bantam. 278 pp. $21.95

Kiki Takehashi would seem to have it all: a spacious New York apartment, a bright future in academia, a gorgeous, courtly lawyer for a fiance. Perfect, except for the naked, staring, occasionally transparent man who appears from time to time perched on her windowsill or curled up in the fireplace: the ghost of Phillip, recently killed in a climbing accident. His presence unnerves Kiki, but it doesn't surprise her: "In my family, being haunted by a lost love is not even news."

In this strikingly assured debut novel, Mako Yoshikawa has created a heroine who is wary of the world. Like the improbably violet moths that flit through her living room, Kiki's thoughts tend to drift free--when her boyfriend, Eric, proposes unexpectedly, she doesn't even hear him at first. But she accepts, opting for "a band of gold that anchors me to earth" over a future of indefinite longing. Where Phillip was a restless traveler, full of hunger and sweetness and magnetic charm, Eric is a handsome square, at whose approach the doors of life have always swung wide.

Caught between a chasm of grief and a fairy tale future that feels like someone else's story, Kiki looks to her grandmother for inspiration. Yukiko was sold to a geisha house at 14, and eventually parlayed her proximity to powerful men into a loving marriage and a stable future. A falling-out with her own daughter, Kiki's mother, Akiko, has meant that grandmother and granddaughter have never met. Yukiko has promised to visit in the fall. In passages that fall unfortunately short of Arthur Golden's masterly "Memoirs of a Geisha," Kiki relates her grandmother's story. "Whether I like it or not," she says, "the lives of my mother and my grandmother are the stars by which I chart my course."

There is one more star that Kiki navigates by: her Japaneseness, and the way the men around her react to it. Her conviction that "what a geisha is to Japan, a Japanese woman is to America" makes her feel a deeper kinship to her distant grandmother. But where Yukiko once wielded her beauty as a weapon and a shield, Kiki prickles with suspicion that gallant Eric may have an "Asian-woman fetish." Her hair-trigger defensiveness diminishes her in comparison with her grandmother as well as her mother, who married for love and ran away to America, only to be abandoned by Kiki's father. When set against their stories of survival, Kiki's brushes with the shallow men who pant for her long black hair and slender figure seem trivial.

Yoshikawa enlivens her quietly reflective narrative with moments of finely tuned sensuality and keenly observed New York details: the joys of the subway, the batty neighbor who appears at her door to chat when she hears the elevator opening. But Kiki, whose internal monologue is far more complex than anything she actually utters, never seems to merge with her deftly drawn setting. As she postpones a final decision on whether to marry Eric, waiting hopefully for her grandmother "and her bagful of answers," the momentum sags. The denouement, when it comes, seems hasty, with Yoshikawa allowing the bare mechanism of plot to intrude on what is essentially a study of moods.

Yoshikawa's graceful premise--three generations of women confronting three different sets of cultural and romantic mores, their fates separate but entwined--is a tough one to deliver on. Our only access to Yukiko and Akiko is through the filter of Kiki's questing unhappiness; their lives are made subordinate to hers, though what she has suffered isn't quite in the same league. The meditative tenor of the book can sometimes muffle the drama of the braided stories. But as Kiki takes ever steadier steps away from her past with Phillip, the ultimate truths are sharp and clear: the egotism of grief, and the difficult process of learning to be grateful to have loved at all.