The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende – Book

The
Japanese Lover
is a lovely story but not as complex as Isabel Allende’s
usual creations. She likes to mix history with her fiction. She stresses our
immigrant roots as Americans and in this book all of the main characters are
showing their immigrant roots. (I
know that using the word lovely is supposed to be the kiss of death for a
novel, but this is Isabel Allende. She is strong. She can take the “L” word.) 

Alma, and this is mostly Alma’s story, was sent to her aunt
and uncle in the city Allende’s books often center on, San Francisco. She was
sent by her Polish parents to her relatives before World War II clamped down on
Europe. Her parents were Jewish and were eventually killed in a concentration
camp.
Alma is old now. We learn about her life in flashbacks. Her
uncle’s family was wealthy – the Belasco’s. Alma was lonely and her girl
cousins were not welcoming, but Nathaniel, also a misfit, was good to Alma. The
Belasco’s has a Japanese gardener, Takao Fukuda, who had a son, Ichimei, who
also befriended Alma. In fact those two had a special bond. They were separated
when Ichimei and his family were sent to a Japanese internment camp in the
American hinterlands. By the time Ichimei is freed from the camps everything
has changed. For one thing, he no longer works for the Belasco’s.
Alma and Ichimei are in love but Alma is not enough of a
rebel to give up her wealth, comfort, and social acceptance. There is something
quite real about this that I appreciate.
Irina, born in Moldova, works in the senior home where Alma
now lives. Irina suffered a terrible but undefined (until later) form of abuse
which she keeps a secret. Alma keeps her love for Ichimei a secret. She
actually married her cousin Nathaniel, a man who also had secrets to keep. An
old friend, Lenny, comes to live at Lark House and renews his friendship with
Alma and there are things to learn about him as well.
Irina, who becomes Alma’s assistant, and Alma’s grandson,
Seth, are fascinated by Alma and they snoop politely to learn Alma’s secrets
before she takes them with her. This story sounds like a schmaltzy tear-jerker
but it is not. Allende doesn’t play with our emotions in that way. It is more
an artistic, intellectual, and historical rendering of the postwar era in San
Francisco as it affected the lives of real people. However Allende’s portrayal
of aging – the still vibrant mind and the continuing emotional content of that
mind — which Alma presents to us makes her seems so young, a youthfulness that
is gradually curtailed by the growing frailty of her body. Allende’s portrayal
of aging reads as true as the other choices her characters make in their lives.
It also makes us wish we could all live and die wealthy and successful.
You will either love the ending or find it, as I did a bit
trite. Allende has always had that certain magical quality that suggested, and
almost convinced us, that ghosts are real. Although this is not my favorite Allende
novel it is perfect for this stage of my life. Someone else will have to tell
you whether you must be old to appreciate this novel, but I don’t think so.
Alma is a character worth getting to know. In fact, you probably already know
someone very much like her. 

By Nancy Brisson

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