Reviewed by Emma Crowley
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 an internationally bestselling author of over 10 novels. I have only read her last novel Maya's Notebook which I did enjoy and only several days after finishing it did I appreciate the excellence of the writing. I would class this author as in the more higher end of the women's fiction market, her books are not light and easy reads. You won't fly through this book as there is so much detail on each page that you will find yourself reading slowly to absorb every detail. I say absorb every detail because you are really not sure what is surplus to requirements or what just proves to be an essential element in the overall story. There are so many layers in this book that you really need to concentrate and peel them back to reach the very core of the story.
Admittedly The Japanese Lover caught my eye more so for the beautifully, evocative cover rather than the title. The title suggests this book is historical fiction and reading the blurb events of the past would intersperse with the present. This sounded like my type of book as I love historical fiction with a dual narrative. Truthfully now having finished the book I didn't get the usual dual time frame that I have come to love in say Lucinda Riley's writing. Yes we slipped between the past and the present but somewhere along the line we lost some cohesiveness which in my mind prevented this story from becoming the brilliant piece of work it could have been. Instead although it may sound ridiculous I am still unsure whether I disliked or loved this book, maybe I am stuck in the middle on this one.
The Japanese Lover focuses on two women Alma Belasco and Irina Bazili, both immigrants but with vastly different backgrounds and years apart in age. Alma is in the later stages of her life and has come to Lark House Nursing Home to enjoy however many years she may have left. Irina is a young girl in her prime who takes a job in Lark House not as a nurse but as a form of carer. She is a drifter and has had no fixed abode for any length of time. Slowly as the story develops we sense there is a past and a hurt with Irina, something is holding her back preventing her from embracing life and love as any young woman is want to do. She doesn’t have much money and washes dogs and works in a café as a sideline and lives in the most basic of shared apartments. The reader is left contemplating the question how can a young woman find herself in a job which may not be in which area she wants to work in? We come to understand she left behind her grandparents in Moldova to live with her mother in America. But might she have been better off staying where she was if she knew what America had in store for her? Working at Lark House Irina feels in some tiny little way she is giving something back or making up in a small way for the fact she left behind the people who loved her most. 'Lark House gave her the opportunity to give to others what she hasn't been able to give to them and she kept this in mind as she began looking after those in her care'. As Irina embraces her new job and meets all kind of characters in this not run of the mill retirement/nursing facility she encounters Alma and her grandson Seth. Irina wants to discover the secrets Alma is keeping and why? Maybe also at the same time resolve some issues of her own and open her heart just that little bit more.
Alma is sent away by her parents in 1939 as Poland falls under the cruel hands of Hitler and the Germans and the world erupts into war. A war which will see such utter devastation and cruelty. Millions will be killed and lives irreversibly changed forever. None more so than the life of Alma although fortunately she is sent to wealthy relatives in San Francisco. She does find it hard to adjust in the beginning locking herself away in a wardrobe for hours to cry and let everything out. But her cousin Nathaniel is a someone who begins to understand Alma. A bond is formed which will see them through good times and bad and they will make the ultimate sacrifices for each other. The reader gains an insight into how Alma lived on the Belasco estate and was given as many educational opportunities as she wished. But it is when she meets Ichemi Fukuda, son of the Japanese gardener Takao, that Alma may even begin to develop the first signs of a deep and everlasting love. But as the blurb suggests nothing ever runs smoothly and the pair are torn apart when Ichemi and his family are interred. So begins a lifetime of separation followed by brief periods where they are reunited. Their paths diverge through the hands of others and fate may well want to keep them apart permanently.
The scenes written in the past were in my opinion far more interesting than reading the modern day story. I really enjoyed the chapters focusing on Alma and Ichemei's history as they were excellent and gripping. I felt I was getting a real sense of time and place, unfortunately just as you were getting into this aspect of the story the chapter would end and I felt I was brought kicking and screaming back to the present and Lark House. We would read endless pages which brought nothing to the story instead just giving more information on the residents and their day to day lives. Honestly the author did seem to go off on an awful lot of tangents which were not needed and surplus to the overall plot. The mini story involving Irina and an elderly man (not so much in the romantic sense) was just silly and bored me. Yes I can't deny that the writing is beautiful and evocative in parts of this book but the author takes several pages to get to the main point of what she wants to say when literally a line or two or even a paragraph would have sufficed. I found myself getting to the end of a chapter and thinking what was the point of that. I don't feel what I have just read has moved the story on in anyway at all. Truthfully some aspects of this story weren't given enough attention and others rambled on and did nothing for me. I have said there was so much detail on each page that it does require all your attention and I still stand by that. Maybe this combined with taking forever to get to the point made this an average read where it could have achieved a much higher standard and reached a wider audience.
The historical aspects are what really made me continue on with this book, hearing of Alma's brother was a great story although too brief. The descriptions of the years Ichemi's family spent interred were vivid, realistic and there was no holding back in detailing the harsh conditions and racial injustice Ichemi was forced to suffer. His family suffered many cruel blows but Alma held out for him as long as she could. Theirs was a love which would always be up against innumerable obstacles or so the author would have us believe. 'Because he's from another race, another social class, another culture, another religion, another economic level'. Perhaps the main problem with this book was that really I don't think I believed the love Alma and Ichemi were meant to have felt for each other. Yes we read letters sent by Ichemi over the years after his release as both his life and Alma's embarks on very different tracks but there was something really lacking. The Japanese Lover of the title failed to show me the depth and passion of the connection the pair had for each other. In the last quarter of the book there are numerous surprising revelations many of which I had never seen coming and characters I had felt had ridiculous plot lines made a reappearance and eventually I made the connections but really it was too little too late.
Honestly I was disappointed by this book because it proved not to be what I had been expecting and for many of the reasons I have mentioned above. When a colleague asked me recently what I was reading and I mentioned this book she said oh I loved The House of the Spirits and I had to say this is definitely different and not as good as it could be. There was so much potential but it never fully reached it. Cutting out a lot of the modern sections would have helped and allowed for further character development and let the reader really get more inside Alma's head. Maybe we would have understood her actions more. Yes the ending left me gobsmacked and it may have been bittersweet but to finally pick up the pace towards the end was sadly too little, too late for me. I would love to hear what other people make of this and how it compares with the majority of Allende's other books as I have only read the one previous. I would read this book for the historical sections alone as they were the books strongest aspects but as for the stories emerging from Lark house they may best be taken at face value.
Many thanks to Atria books for my copy of this book via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.