“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that 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 come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric 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, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
While The Japanese Lover tells what should be fascinating stories of suffering and survival, the key problem I had with it was the telling. As in, show — don’t tell. Somehow, most of the narrative of this novel felt like a third party summarizing events, rather than allowing me to witness events for myself. There are a lot of shared stories and memories, but they mostly lack immediacy or a sense of real texture.
Additionally, the overall storyline felt a bit kitchen-sinky to me. Alma is sent off to American by her parents who stay behind in Poland and perish in the Holocaust. Irina’s mother was a victim of sex trafficking and ultimately causes horrible abuse to Irina herself. Ichimei and his family are forced into an internment camp during World War II. Alma’s husband leads a closeted life and dies of AIDS. Horrible things happen, but somehow I barely felt any of them.
The Japanese Lover is a fast read, and parts were quite interesting, but I simply couldn’t engage emotionally with much of it due to the style of the storytelling. This was actually pretty surprising to me, as I’ve read and loved many books by this author in the past. The individual stories all should have been compelling, but the mashing up of them all into one novel just doesn’t work. Add to this the fact that Alma and Ichimei’s love story felt flat and unexciting, and I have to say that The Japanese Lover just isn’t the best example of an Isabel Allende novel.
Title: The Japanese Lover
Author: Isabel Allende
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Historical fiction