Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Japanese Lover

Title:  The Japanese Lover
Author:  Isabel Allende
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501116975 / 978-1501116971

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When Irina Bazili began working at Lark House in 2010, she was twenty-three years old but already had few illusions about life."

Favorite Quote:  "We start to grow old as soon as we are born, we change every day, life is a continuous state of flux. We evolve. The only difference is that now we are a little closer to death. What's so bad about that? Love and friendship do not age."

The Japanese Lover centers on two women even though the cover features one and the Japanese lover belongs to only one. Alma is a woman in her eighties in an assisted living senior facility; she is fiercely independent and protective of what she holds dear. Irina is in her twenties, working at the residential facility but held captive by her past. The book weaves past and present to tell both women's stories.

This book has a bit of everything thrown in. World War II. Internment camps. Child abuse. Pornography. Affairs. Elder care. Marriage of convenience. Relationships unacceptable to the social standards of the time. AIDS. Drugs. Abortion. I did not expect quite so many complications all in a historical fiction love story going from World War II to the present.

The biggest issue I have with the book is that I do not care for or really believe the main character. Alma uses the people around her; things are all about her. I never really get a sense of who the two men in her life - Nathaniel and Ichimei - really are. She seems to have two good men devoted to her, but she doesn't treat either one well. She professes undying love for one, yet is unwilling to make the compromises and sacrifices that entails. She takes advantage of her friendship with the other to achieve social and financial security. The entire premise of the book is on her love story spanning decades, but unfortunately I don't feel the love.

Nathaniel's story is told briefly towards the end of the book, and it could be a book all by itself. Instead, it becomes a footnote in Alma's story. It never develops but seems included as more a justification for her behavior towards him. The relationship works for him for his own reasons, but that does not really make me like Alma any more. It just is sad for him.

I don't find Ichimei's story to be present in the book much either. The reader sees him through Alma's and through his love letters sprinkled between chapters throughout the book. Here is a man with a story of immigration, of survival through internment, of poverty, of family obligations, and of this grand love that survives from childhood through the rest of his life. Yet, I feel as if I know nothing about him. How is his love story supposed to feel real if he does not?

Irina's story could also be a book all by itself, but it seems not to belong in Alma's story. Both are immigrants; both are orphans; and both have secrets in their past. However, their stories really have no overlap other than the fact that Irina works for Alma. It's like reading two separate stories. I don't see the correlation - real, symbolic, or otherwise.

Another issue I have with the book is the ending of Alma's story. My reaction is, "Really? That's where this is going? I read 300 pages for this end?" Let's just say the mix of elements introduced in the ending is just not for me. I don't really buy into Alma's story through the whole book, and the ending does not help matters.

Isabel Allende is an author that has long been on my "to read" list, but this is actually the first book I have read by her. I will perhaps try another for this one unfortunately is not for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you completely! I just couldn't like Alma much. I sympathized with her as a child torn from her family and home. I understood her childhood attachment to Ichi and Nathaniel, but I did not care for the woman she became, from her college days on. Felt like I never got to know any of the male characters until the end of the book when we learn about Nathaniel and Lenny's relationship. Nathaniel's illness/death and the friendship that developed between Alma and Lenny was the only part of the story that felt real to me. The ending with Ichi being dead already for 3 years? Alma writing letters and sending flowers to herself, and going on her secret rendezvous' alone? Give me a break! And I found Irina's back story to be jarring and unnecessary. This was my first book by Allende and I'll probably give her another chance. If I do I hope I like it better than this one.