Thursday, January 08, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Holly's excellent review right here!

Jamie Ford's debut novel, a story of first love against the backdrop of Japanese evacuation in post-Pearl Harbor Seattle, is sweet, sentimental, and redemptive. I found myself unable to put the book down, and I admit to sniffling a few times. I absolutely recommend this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I couldn't shake the feeling of regret that it wasn't...more. Like having a fantastic big tub of movie popcorn, the kind with extra butter, when you were hoping for a five-course meal by candlelight. Okay, that's a stupid metaphor, but I can't help wishing this were Ford's say, third or fourth novel, instead of his first. Because it's an excellent read that doesn't quite reach its story's (or storyteller's) potential.

The story goes back and forth between 1942, the year sixth-grade Henry Lee befriends Keiko Okabe, the only other Asian at the all-white prep school, and 1986, the year an old hotel in Japantown is re-opened, revealing the treasures hidden there by Japanese families who were "evacuated." In the 1942 timeline, Henry and Keiko are scholarship students who work in the cafeteria, serving lunch to the white kids who torment them. It's only a matter of time before Keiko's family is sent to a work camp, and Henry's controlling, traditional father sends him to school wearing an "I Am Chinese" button to distinguish himself to the whites who think all Asians look the same. In the 1986 timeline, Henry's wife has died after a long illness and Henry struggles to relate to his son, Marty, without his wife as a buffer. Meanwhile, Henry sees a press conference in which the new owner of the Panama Hotel twirls a parasol she found in the basement--a parasol Henry is sure belonged to Keiko. Everything you think will happen from this summary is how the story turns out--there are no surprises in store. And that's where my disappointment lies. I loved the sweet story of Henry and Keiko, Henry's conflict between his heart and his loyalty to his parents, the delightful interjection of the Seattle jazz scene into the mix, fantastic secondary characters in Sheldon and Mrs. Beatty, and Henry's future daughter-in-law. But I expected something unexpected that never appeared, something in addition to the mechanically unfolding plot as the two timelines converged. Some passages of the 1986 story felt perfunctory to me, and middle-aged Henry wasn't as compelling as the page-turning 1942 storyline.

Again, I recommend this book. My disappointment makes the difference between a four-star book and a five-star book. And this is a solid four-star book.


Holly said...

It's funny. The story was a bit predictable with the ending....BUT, that's what I wanted to happen. I actually spent the last third of the book planning to be very mad at Jamie Ford if the inevitable did NOT happen! :-) So I was very pleased with the outcome. Although, I really didn't want the book to end because I enjoyed reading it so much.

allisonmariecat said...

Oh, that's totally the way I wanted it to end! I just wanted a little...more...on the way. I still loved the book, I just felt in some places like I was plodding through a checklist of things that had to happen before we got the ending we wanted.

Love his writing--I'll definitely check out his next novel.