I know Isabel Allende from Daughter of Fortune and Zorro, so when I saw The Japanese Lover (2015) at Costco, I was immediately interested. Alma Belasco is a young, privileged, Jewish girl in Poland. As WWII ramps up to its destructive beginnings, Alma’s family sends her to her rich uncle in San Francisco, where she is safe, but alone, lonely and miserable. Her two companions become her cousin, Nick, and the Japanese-American son of the family’s gardener, Ichimei Fukuda. Alma and Ichi soon become inseparable. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the racial tension ratchets up and Ichi and his family are forced into a U.S. government internment camp.
Near the end of her life, Alma has moved out of the family mansion and into a rather eccentric nursing home. Irina, a desperately poor young woman has just been hired and befriends Alma, becoming her new assistant. Alma’s grandson, Seth, is a frequent visitor, and he becomes besotted with Irina. The two make attempts to figure out the mystery that is Alma’s past and the whisper of a mysterious love affair. As Irina and Seth become closer, we learn that Irina grew up in an impoverished village in Moldova, with her grandparents, When Irina is twelve years old, her newly married mother sends for her from Texas.
Going into this novel, I was expecting a detailed, in-depth story of forbidden love with some focus on the treatment of the Japanese in America during WWII. I was partly correct. This book is much more than a tale of internment camps in WWII. And it is also much more than Alma and Ichi’s relationship. Just as important, if not more so, are the relationships between Alma and Nick, Alma and Irina, and Irina and Seth. Irina and her history in Moldova and Texas play a large part in the book. In addition, there is a lot of rumination about death and looking back on your life with or without regret.
There are a lot of things I liked about this book. The descriptions of the internment camp was fascinating and made me want to do more research on the subject. I wouldn’t mind an entire book on the subject–fiction or non-fiction. Allende also did a very good job with keeping the characters interesting and the plot moving. I never got bored while reading. In addition, Allende has the gift of creating a world and making it come to life. The retirement home became a real and entertaining character of its own.
My only complaint is that I sometimes felt the characters’ feelings were informed. We are told that Alma and Ichi loved each other very much, but I never really saw it. I was expecting a torrid love affair that would uphold an entire book, and I just didn’t feel it. In addition, I didn’t really see where Seth’s adoration of Irina came from. Finally, I would have liked more details on Ichi, his life, and his feelings. Alma, despite narrowly missing death in Poland, lives a life full of privilege and opportunities, and she makes decisions that ensure her continued privilege. Ichi, on the other hand, faces much more adversity and I wish I knew more of him.
This book was both a lot more and a little less than I was expecting. Although I didn’t always feel connected to the characters, it is a book I’d still recommend.
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