Review: The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende

Published November 3rd 2015 by Atria Books

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: ARC from publisher

25152052

In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

I am a huge fan of Isabel Allende.  I started in college with Daughter of Fortune and started reading everything I could.  The House of the Spirits is magical.  The book about her daughter, Paula broke my heart.  Her family history completely fascinates me.  Allende’s stories have moved from Chile to the United States – which makes sense as she’s now settled in California and an American herself.  I admit that while I love her earlier works the most I was still extremely eager to dive into the Japanese Lover.  

The Japanese Lover definitely tells a good story.  We bounce between Alma, a resident at a San Francisco home for seniors, and her assistant Irina, an immigrant with a mysterious past.  We also follow Alma’s grandson Seth, who is in love with Irina and in cahoots with her to try to understand where Alma disappears to on weekends.  The setting was great – there could have been so many more stories to tell in Lark House about all of the aging residents and the staff.  As Allende takes the reader into Alma’s past arriving in California after fleeing the Nazis in Poland we meet her young friend Ichimei and his family.

Alma, Irina and Seth are all entwined researching history for a book that Seth will write and chapters are interspersed with letters from Ichimei to Alma over the years.  The young friends are separated when Pearl Harbor is bombed and Ichimei and his family are sent away.  The contrasts between Alma’s family’s fortune and Ichimei’s journey to a Japanese internment camp are stark – as are the differences in upbringing for young Irina and Seth.  It was definitely unsettling to read about the Japanese camps at a time of so much hate in the news.  Scary really.  That being said, I enjoyed the back and forth between the stories – I feel like I could have read a book focused on just one of these couples.  I definitely didn’t like Alma’s choices all the time, but she was entertaining to read about.  

Again – Allende always tells a good story.  I just feel like this time I was simply told a story rather than having been immersed into one.  The characters were interesting, but could have had much greater depth. Allende touches on so many topics – World War II, racism, child abuse, immigration and poverty, living with disabilities and aging – but she could have gone so much further into any of them.  

I’m going to find myself rereading the House of the Spirits soon to find that Allende magic.

3 stars

Thank you Atria for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

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