There is a story, perhaps an urban legend, of a little girl who, when presented with a baby chick, is so thrilled that in a fit of ecstasy she bites off its head. In Watanabe's excruciatingly beautiful and scary romance, protagonists Kuki and Rinko are enthralled by the true story of a love-maddened woman who strangles her lover, then mutilates him, carrying his severed sexual parts next to her own. They are also fascinated by the story of a couple who at the height of a torrid love affair hang themselves. In earlier centuries, such Japanese love suicides, called shin ju, were considered acts of great beauty and nobility. However, this is the 20th century and acts of great beauty no longer fit into everyday life. Kuki, a 55-year-old publishing executive, is stuck in a dead-end job and a boring marriage when he meets Rinko, a childless 37-year-old calligrapher, unhappy and sexually unfulfilled in her marriage to a professor of medicine. Kuki intuits the passionate woman behind Rinko's demure facade and, as the affair develops, the pair's white-hot lovemaking becomes ever more daring and experimental. Their outside lives suffer: Kuki is demoted to an even more demeaning position in his company, while Rinko's family disowns her. Watanabe's use of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell makes the sexual obsession of the lovers a personal, sensuous thing. Readers taste the sak and delicate meals, and feel the velvet texture of cherry blossoms. The couple's freewheeling passion is contrasted with the rigidity of Japanese society, where everyone has a role to play. As their ardent and inflamed lovemaking isolates them even more, the affair spirals out of control, speeding toward an inevitable yet still shocking conclusion. This is a delicate, daring, sexual, sensual reading experience. (Aug.) FYI: A Lost Paradise has sold 2.5 million copies in Japan.