Talk about being late to the party. I’ve been hearing about this book for years (since its publication in 2009, to be more precise), and yet it never quite made it into my hands until this month. Thanks to an upcoming book club discussion, I’ve finally read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet… and all I can say is, what took me so long?
This sad, sweet, and ultimately hopeful book is about love, friendship, family, and second chances. Centered around a shameful period in US history, Hotel is set at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, as communities of Japanese Americans are forced from their homes and into internment camps. In 1942 Seattle, 12-year-old Chinese-American Henry Lee attends an all-white school, wearing the “I Am Chinese” button that his father forces on him to make sure everyone knows that Henry isn’t one of the enemy. Bullied and alone, Henry hates his new school until he meets the lovely, artistic new student, Keiko, daughter of a Japanese-American family. Henry and Keiko become fast friends, but Henry knows he’s breaking his father’s rules every moment he spends in Keiko’s company. When Keiko’s family is forced out in the evacuation of Japantown, Henry is bereft — but with the assistance of his musician friend Sheldon, he finds a way to stay connected with Keiko even in the distant and desolate camp to which she and her family are relocated.
Family is really at the heart of this slim book. Henry’s parents are so determined that he should be an American that he’s forbidden to speak Cantonese in their home — but since neither parent speaks English, the family spends years never really speaking to one another. Family loyalty is tested again and again, as Henry must choose between obedience to his parents — Chinese loyalists who are virulently anti-Japanese — and his need to help Keiko and her family. Keiko too must choose between the possibility of shelter and escape or staying with her parents and brother.
The time period of the books switches between the 1940s and the 1980s, when we see Henry as a recent widower with a cordial but distant relationship with his only child. When a trove of war-era items is found in a boarded-up old hotel in Japantown, Henry’s memories of Keiko are rekindled, and he begins a journey of rediscovery that starts to heal the rift between Henry and his son as well as presenting the possibility of recapturing a long lost love.
Through it all, these well-defined characters struggle for understanding and connection, forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, fighting to do what’s right, even when what’s right isn’t always clear. Loyalty, love, and friendship are all tested in different ways, and the recurring theme of jazz music nicely highlights the characters’ feelings and experiences.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a lovely book about a tragic piece of history. More than just a glimpse of the past, though, Hotel offers a glimpse into the hearts of its characters. Deeply affecting and full of period detail, this is a book that will be in my thoughts for quite some time to come.
Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2009
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Historical fiction