Tsukuru Tazaki, 36 years old and living in Tokyo, is a moderately wealthy, well-educated engineer who designs and builds railroad stations - a job he's wanted since childhood. Nevertheless Tsukuru has few friends, is lonely, and can't see a happy future for himself. Part of the problem is a trauma Tsukuru experienced as a teen. In high school Tsukuru was part of an extremely close group of friends - two girls and three boys - that spent most of their free time together, always had things to talk about, and loved each other's company. Soon after Tsukuru started college however, the group shut him out - told him not to try to see or call them - with no explanation.
The resulting depression almost killed Tsukuru; he lost weight and his physical appearance changed dramatically. Tsukuru eventually recovered and went on with his life but he avoided visiting his home town, rarely saw his family, and was afraid to trust people for fear of being hurt again.
At the urging of Sara, a woman he's currently dating, Tsukuru decides to find and confront his friends - one at a time- to discover what happened all those years ago. The story moves back and forth between the past and the present and we learn about Tsukuru's relationship with his friends, college years, career development, and so on.
We discover that Tsukuru swam for recreation when he was in college and developed a friendship with a fellow swimmer, Haida. Haida helps Tsukuru develop an appreciation for classical music and becomes a frequent weekend guest at his apartment. This part of the story has aspects that seem like magical realism.
Haida tells a story about his father taking a year off school as a young man to work as a handyman in a rural spa. There he met a kind of 'hippy' Jazz pianist who saw colored auras around people that revealed things about them. Tsukuru also has vivid erotic dreams about the girls in his teen group and Haida - and has difficulty separating these dreams from reality.
In the course of the story Tsukuru tracks down most of his old friends and gets an explanation for their behavior, which helps him move on. The story is slow-moving and Tsukuru is too laid back a character for my taste. It's hard to believe Tsukuru didn't act sooner to discover why his friends abandoned him. Also - when he got the explanation - his reaction should have been more dramatic. However, this probably isn't the point of the book which is about Tsukuru's quest to understand his life and find happiness.
Murikami does a good job with ambience, and provides colorful descriptions of people and thier surroundings. I got a feel for parts of Japan and Finland that are described in the story, and the characters were interesting if not always believable.
Not a bad book but not really my cup of tea. Fans of Murikami would probably enjoy the book more than I did.