Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was my book club’s selection for January and I was pretty excited to read it. With a World War II setting, Asian cultures, and forbidden love, I assumed it would be right up my alley. Well, you know what they say about assumptions…
The novel opens with 50-something Henry Lee passing a crowd gathering outside a long-shuttered hotel in Seattle, the Panama Hotel. In the basement, the hotel’s new owners discovered hundreds of suitcases’ worth of Japanese families’ possessions in the basement, stored there for safe keeping in the early 1940s, just as our wonderful government was ordering the relocation of all citizens of Japanese heritage to internment camps. Henry spots a particular parasol and he is soon transported to 1942, where, as a lonely 12-yr-old Chinese boy he met the beautiful Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese girl and sole non-white companion at Henry’s prestigious school. The two develop a friendship over the work they do as scholarship students which soon grows into the beginnings of young love. They face many obstacles – not just a government with a powerful mistrust of Japanese-Americans, but also Henry’s traditional Chinese father, who harbors a years-long hatred for all things Japanese.Interspersed with Henry’s memories from 1942 are snapshots of his life in 1986 (the present day of this particular tale); Henry is a recently-widowed retiree with a college-age son and a lot of time on his hands. He uses this time to search through the piles of suitcases in the Panama’s basement, hoping to find something he can tie to Keiko or her family.
This all sounds like a sweet story, doesn’t it? And it is; I think I’ve begun this particular review with a negative attitude. I was simply underwhelmed by this book. The writing was somewhat juvenile, especially the dialogue. There were quite a few times where I said out loud to the book “Ok, I get it!!! Henry has difficulty communicating with his son just like he had difficulty talking to his own father.” I often found myself thinking “Don’t tell me, SHOW me.” Ford seems to struggle a little to reveal the depths of each character and therefore just lays out traits and feelings point blank. I like to form my own conclusions about characters rather than have every emotion they might be feeling pointed out in each paragraph. Another major issue I had with this book is that the entirety of the novel is Henry’s story. We know very little of Keiko, though we do interact with her some. It would have been interesting to hear her side of her and Henry’s love story, especially as concerns her experiences living in internment camps and trying to cling to any shred of normalcy in such a strange time.
I did enjoy discovering that Ford used real people and places in his descriptions of life in Seattle in the early 40s. The Panama Hotel is a real place; some of the jazz musicians Keiko and Henry enjoy listening to were also real figures in the Seattle music scene of the time. Reading this book made me curious about the internment camps; the dark and embarrassing parts of our history are always fascinating. It’s quite interesting how easily we forget how horrible our own government is capable of being. I discovered that eventually there were some reparations (which is something I guess???), but it’s still appalling that citizens BORN in the United States could be carted off to a camp to keep separate from the rest of our country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware it’s not the worst thing the US has done, I just don’t think about it as often, probably because we like to try to sweep that one under the rug.
Overall, I think the general idea of the story is a nice one; if the writing had been a little more mature I think I’d rate the book higher. As it is, if you’re looking for an easy read I suppose this would work for folks. If you’re looking to be touched or affected by some historical fiction, skip this one. I think this may have been the writer’s first book. He shows some promise, so perhaps later works are more appealing.