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*I received a free ARC of The Japanese Lover from Simon & Schuster UK via Netgalley in exchange of an honest and unbiased review*
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Published by Simon & Schuster UK on 5 November 2015
Genres: Adult, Historical, Romance
Reading Challenges: 2015 New Release Challenge
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.
Sweeping through time and spanning generations and continents, The Japanese Lover explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and the unknowable impact of fate on our lives. Written with the same attention to historical detail and keen understanding of her characters that Isabel Allende has been known for since her landmark first novel The House of the Spirits, The Japanese Lover is a profoundly moving tribute to the constancy of the human heart in a world of unceasing change.
The Japanese Lover is a deep, poetic story, where lives are intertwined and influence each other. Spanning over several decades, the story delves into characters secret lives, and show that love is indeed very strong.
The Japanese Lover follows Alma Belasco’s life, from she was a little girl and until she was an old woman in her eighties, and she tells her story to one of the carers, Irina Bazili. These two women, who seem to have nothing at all in common shared their days at Lark House Nursing Home, and Alma soon decided to pay Irina to be her assistant, so she could share documents from her past with her grand-son, Seth. Filled with melancholy, nostalgia and love, the story touched me very deeply, and I still have tears in my eyes and an ache in my chest writing my review.
Because the story spans over seventy years, there are many details that are not covered, however, what was important about Alma was included. The way she grew from a child to a young woman, how she had one big love with whom she didn’t feel strong enough to live with, and how in later years she became famous both for her silk-paintings and her altruistic charity of building parks in San Fransicso. While some parts of Alma’s personality weren’t very likeable, her character was still easy to relate to. Covering themes like forbidden love – in more than one sense – and strong family ties, The Japanese Lover also included the second world war, the internment camps, and distance from family members being hard to bear.
Written with beautiful turns of phrases, even the difficult events that were included in The Japanese Lover took a poetic quality, and made the harshness easier to read about and experience alongside the characters. While Alma was the main character in many ways, it could be argued that Irina was instrumental to the story as well. Especially because she had been through a horrible trauma in her young years, and thus found herself feeling safe only when she was surrounded by the elders, showering them with love and patience, while also helping them cope with not always being able to care for themselves as they were used to.
Allende truly managed to show me her characters at their best and at their worst, and even as I got to know them quite well, there were parts of their lives they kept hidden until the time was right to share them. Written in third person point of view and past tense, with an external narrator, The Japanese Lover shares both historical events that are relevant to the characters and private moments that move the story forward. Allende has accomplished to weave a beautiful tale that shows human nature in all its ugliness and in all its beauty.
Alma lived with her cat in one of the independent apartments, with a minimum of furniture and personal belongings. She drove around in a tiny car, completely ignoring all traffic regulations, which she chose to regard as optional.
This won him Irina’s admiration, but not Alma’s. She accused him of having grandiose ideas and sloppy habits, a fatal combination for a writer.
So began Alma’s stay in the grand house at Sea Cliff, where she was to spend seventy largely uninterrupted years. She almost completely exhausted her stock of tears in her first months there in 1939, and from then on wept only rarely.