In brief: An intergenerational story – Alma, now an old woman reflects on her life and loves while in the present, her carer Irina hides her history as Alma’s grandson falls in love with her.
The good: Reading about the Fukuda family and how they were treated during WWII in America was an eye opener.
The not-so-good: Bit of a dull patch in the middle between Alma’s history and when Irina’s secret is revealed.
Why I chose it: Thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me books I will like before I even know of them!
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Translators: Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson (from the Spanish)
Setting: USA predominantly, with hints of Europe and Japan
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
The Japanese Lover is my introduction to Isabel Allende, one of the authors on my long list to read. It sounded like the perfect book for someone interested in Japan and Japanese-American history. It’s a pleasant book that introduces many questions to the reader – how to define family, sexuality, love and friendship and when (or if) it is acceptable to break out of society’s constraints. Many big ideas are addressed and some are explored in more detail than others, but overall this story is a satisfying read with complex characters and fascinating storylines.
From the beginning, the reader has an inkling that the characters are not always going to be part of a big, traditional family. Irina appears to be world weary at 23 (hints dropped within the first paragraph) but her mystery is put on hold as we’re introduced to Alma and the residents of Lark House in San Francisco. Lark House is a residential facility for retirees and aged care, but with a few quirks as a place for the artistic and open minded. (Think of a hippie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). Alma’s a bit different to the rest of the residents – she’s wealthy and hob-nobbed with San Fran’s top echelon for years as part of the wealthy Belasco family. She’s also got a few secrets which her grandson Seth wants to tease out of her. As Seth falls in love with Irina, Alma tells her story little by little – from leaving her native Poland as a child to her best childhood friend, Ichimei.
The novel spends time discussing Ichimei and his family’ life in Topaz, the internment camp for Japanese-Americans. I found this part fascinating, as it’s something that doesn’t get discussed too often in fiction (Garden of Stones being the only other example I’ve read). It’s raw, yet tinged with hope. Meanwhile, Alma is missing her friend but decides to escape for college rather than a parade of debutante balls. We hear that she is a successful artist, but it’s firmly in the background as the narrative focuses on relationships. Alma has a multitude of different relationships with men, from her husband, to her lover and long lost friend in Lenny. It is only as the novel comes to its heartbreaking end that we find out what kind of role each of them played. I found myself sorry for all the characters of the past as the story painted such an intricate portrait into the most secret part of their lives. It was hard to leave them.
But what of the younger characters, Irina and Seth? Irina’s story and secret reveal was quite jarring and in stark contrast to Alma’s sad-but-dramatic story. Seth was a man more in the background, there to support Irina rather than have any real role. Come to think of it, all the female characters in The Japanese Lover were exceptionally strong and able to deal with trauma in their lives, including minor characters like fellow resident Dr Catherine Hope. (She was wheelchair bound after an accident, yet became the confidant of many of the Lark House residents).
The writing and translation here is strong and accessible. No fumbles, no awkward sentences as the beauty and love shine from the prose. Sometimes there are parts of translations that don’t come across as well, but there is no evidence of this here. The setting and emotion came across full force to capture the reader. The storyline is quite light and easy to catch up with after work (just put a timer on how far you’ll read into the night)! There’s romance and intrigue aplenty.
Will I be reading more Allende? Of course!