“We start to grow old as soon as we are born, we change every day, life is a continuous state of flux. The only difference is that now we are a little closer to death. What’s so bad about that? Love and friendship do not age.”
– Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis and the world goes to war, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her overseas to live with an aunt and uncle in their opulent San Francisco mansion. There she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener, and between them a tender love blossoms, but following Pearl Harbor the two are cruelly pulled apart. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love 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 reconcile her own troubled past, meets the older woman and her grandson, Seth, at 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, and learn about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
Isabel Allende is a name most bookworms will have heard of before and yet I have never read one of her books. When I read the description of this book, I thought it would be the perfect place to start! Historical fiction – particularly the stories set in the Twentieth Century – have always been a favourite of mine and this one appealed on many different levels. Allende is known for her fairytale-like stories and The Japanese Lover has those qualities in abundance! It is a book about love and history as well as an exploration of what it means to get old.
When Moldovan immigrant Irina Bazili applies for a job at Lark House, an in-demand graduated-care facility, she could not have known she would capture the attention of Alma Belasco, the matriarch of a wealthy family whose decision to live at Lark House is a mystery to all who know her. The more Alma and Irina get to know each other, the more their stories are revealed. Alma was sent to America by her Jewish family, with the hopes she would survive the horrors in Poland in the lead up to World War Two. She arrived in the safe hands of her American family who adopt her as one of their own. It is in the garden where she first meets Ichimi Fukuda, son of a Japanese gardener. Their childhood love develops into an adult obsession however social opinions keep them from openly sharing their love. The Japanese Lover extends across many of the major events of the Twentieth Century such as WW2, the concentration camps and the internment of Japanese Americans in America. Socially, Allende tackles post and pre-war racism, abortion and AIDS.
The strength of Allende’s writing lies in her characters; each one is rounded and completely developed. However in saying this, Allende has fallen into the trap of stereotyping her characters although I don’t think this really hinders them in any way. If anything, it allows the reader to slip into the story with a fair level of comfort. The first few chapters were odd; Alma’s character initially comes across as quite cool and aloof and Allende’s writing is the same. The first few chapters were almost clinical in the way it came across but at an undetermined point in the story, the writing became quite engrossing. There were times when the story became quite clunky; I found the balance of ‘showing versus telling’ to be a little off. In other parts of the story, there were moments of profound sentiment and understanding particularly between the older characters in discussing the difficulties versus freedom of getting old.
Allende’s choices regarding her characters was also surprising, particularly when it came to issues of racism. Alma’s mid-century Jewish family never encountered anti-Semitism; they were welcomed into social clubs, bars and the corridors of Harvard, the horrors of the war eventually forgotten beneath their material wealth in the western world. In contrast to this, Allende often humiliated the Fukuda family and subjected them to the injustices of war. Although I understand this is a work of fiction, I still wondered at her choices to portray one family’s power over the other when history shows this was not the case. No one escapes from war unscathed. Alma and Ichimi’s love is dictated by their social status and despite living in an ever-changing world, they hide their love behind closed doors.
I really did enjoy The Japanese Lover. There were sweet moments of nostalgia, recollections of the past that made me swoon a tad. I really enjoyed the transitions from past to present and the interactions between the characters. The Japanese Lover is another to be added to your TBR pile!
AUTHOR: Isabel Allende
PUBLISHER: Simon and Schuster
PUB DATE: November 2015
Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!