Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetTalk 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.

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The details:

Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2009
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

Book Review: Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

gardenIn December 1941, 14-year-old Lucy Takeda is the cherished daughter of a well-to-do Japanese-American couple living in Los Angeles. Lucy’s father is a successful businessman. Her mother is an enigmatic beauty who turns heads whenever she walks down the street. Lucy lives a happy life with close friends, a good school, and a bright future, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spells the end of life as she once knew it.

Before long, Lucy’s father is dead of a heart attack, and she and her mother, as well as all of their friends and neighbors, are forced from their homes as a result of President Roosevelt’s executive order of 1942, which designated the entire Pacific coast as an exclusion zone and forced thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Lucy and her mother Miyako are sent to Manzanar, the roughly built camp in the Sierra foothills of California, where they are assigned a flimsy wooden barrack in which to live and where their world becomes restricted to one square mile crammed full of their fellow internees.

Compounding the difficulty for Lucy is her mother’s instability. While in today’s world, Miyako might have been treated and medicated, at Manzanar in those times, Miyako was simply viewed as difficult or unlikeable, rather than having her bipolar disorder recognized or accommodated. Miyako’s beauty, however, does not go unnoticed, and she is soon the recipient of unwelcome but unavoidable attention from the powerful men who run the camp. Events soon spiral out of control, and despite their efforts to protect one another, Lucy and Miyako’s time at Manzanar can only end in tragedy for both.

Garden of Stones is a story within a story, framed by events in 1978 in which Lucy’s daughter Patty seeks answers when Lucy’s long-secret past resurfaces unexpectedly. As Patty starts to dig through clues and finally gets her mother to open up, we see the events from the 1940s from Lucy’s perspective, providing an interesting contrast between Lucy’s outlook as a teen and as a middle-aged adult. Lucy’s life has not been easy, and although she has raised Patty to the best of her ability, by keeping her past a secret she has kept her daughter from ever truly knowing who she is and what she’s experienced.

I found myself quite moved by the tragedy of Lucy’s story, in which we witness a life shattered by war and prejudice, a young girl who had everything she cherished ripped away from her, and yet who somehow manages to survive into adulthood and provide a safe and loving home for her child. Garden of Stones presents two very different mother-daughter relationships, and poses some interesting questions: What does it mean for a mother to protect her daughter? Are extreme measures justifiable if taken out of love? Is pain inflicted out of love preferable to pain inflicted through cruelty? How does one survive after enduring loss after loss?

Author Sophie Littlefield explores this shameful chapter from America’s past with an unflinching eye. We see the devastation from Lucy’s perspective, as a child born and raised in the United States, who speaks not a word of Japanese, is suddenly branded as “other”. We witness the terror of the Japanese-American community in the days following Pearl Harbor, as families frantically burn any Japanese goods or relics in their homes so as not to be seen as sympathizers — or worse, as spies or conspirators. We see friends and neighbors close their doors, turn their backs, and otherwise abandon the people they’d lived alongside, as the Japanese-Americans are forced to sell off their belongings for a pittance before being exiled to the internment camps.

But the larger, historical context is not the only source of sorrow and terror in Lucy’s life, and it is her more personal story that truly gives Garden of Stones its emotional richness. Despite the hardships and privations at Manzanar, Lucy seeks out happiness and friendship, but the circumstances of camp life and her mother’s role in Manzanar serve again and again to bring Lucy pain and suffering.

While some of the more dramatic events of the story are fairly well signaled ahead of time, there are several very surprising turns of events that made me go back through the book and reread certain passages with a fresh eye. I found the Manzanar timeline much more compelling than the 1970s storyline, and yet Patty’s exploration of the past served as a very effective means of slowing unearthing the secrets of Lucy’s life and understanding how these secrets continue having an impact even into the next generation.

Sophie Littlefield has crafted a well-written, emotionally intense tale, full of rich detail and with several well-placed, shocking plot twists. Garden of Stones is a moving story of love between mothers and daughters, of the search for meaning despite the cruelties inflicted during a hard life, and of the many different roads toward hope and survival.

Review copy courtesy of Harlequin via Netgalley