Review: The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Hardcover, 322 pages
Published November 3rd, 2015 by Atria Books
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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.

My thoughts…

“You only have one life, but if you live it well, that’s enough. The only reality is now, today. What are you waiting for to be happy?”
― Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover

This is my first book by Isabel Allende and was selected by my library book club for June, I was really looking forward to reading from this author and I do enjoy a historical fiction romance. The Japanese Lover started out slow but I eventually found myself invested in most of the characters.

The story is about the life of Alma Belasco, a young Polish girl who is sent by her parents to the United States to live in the safety of her aunt and uncle in San Francisco when Poland is no longer safe for the Jewish during WWII. The novel spans decades and jumps back and forth between the past and present, where now Alma is a resident in a nursing home. It is here at her Uncles home where she meets a young Ichimei Fukuda, the gardener’s son. Alma struggles to find her place in this new world, and is able to find herself by the friendship and affection of Nathaniel, her cousin, and Ichimei. These two men are to shape Alma’s life and we watch her story unfold in bits and pieces that are beautifully weaved together throughout the book.

“When she was eight she had fallen in love with Ichimei with all the intensity of childhood passions; with Nathaniel, it was the calm love of later years. The two of them fulfilled different roles in her heart, but they were equally indispensable: she was sure that without Ichimei and Nathaniel she wouldn’t survive.”
― Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ichimei and his family are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei are reunite again and again, but they are forced to hide their love.

“At the age of twenty-two, suspecting their time was limited, Ichimei and she had gorged on love to enjoy it to the full, but the more they tried to exhaust it, the wilder their desire became, and whoever says that every flame must sooner or later be extinguished is wrong, because there are passions that blaze on until destiny destroys them with a swipe of its paw, and even then hot embers remain that need only a breath of oxygen to be rekindled.”
― Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover

Fast forward to present day where Irina begins working at Lark House nursing home and meets the now elderly Alma. Irina along with Alma’s grandson, Seth, try to discover what really happened with Ichimei and try to piece together the secretive relationship between the two.

This story is beautifully written and while I enjoyed reading it, it didn't bring out the feelings I expected to have with this kind of a story. I felt sorry for Alma and Ichimei and the way their love story played out, until I discovered that Alma did ultimately have the choice to be with Ichimei, she chose not to marry him and kept his baby a secret. It made me so angry that she basically chose financial security and the opinions of what society would think over him. Although, I can understand in that time, the 1950’s, strong prejudices existed in society against interracial marriage, I just expected more from her. I did find the story between Alma, Ichimei, and Nathaniel so much more interesting and enjoyable than Irina and Seth’s story, I just didn't feel a connection to those two characters.

I will read another book by Isabel Allende; I’m sure her other books are also beautifully written. Happy Reading -J

“We are all born happy. Life gets us dirty along the way, but we can clean it up. Happiness is not exuberant or noisy, like pleasure or joy; it's silent, tranquil, and gentle; it's a feeling of satisfaction inside that begins with self-love”
― Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover


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