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A Pleasant and Intelligent Read for the Road
May 25, 2017 -- The Japanese Lover, a 2015 bestseller, is my first encounter with one of Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende's highly regarded works. I found it highly readable, intelligent and occasionally provocative. The perfect late-spring read, in fact.
A longtime U.S. resident, Allende speaks fluent English but prefers to write in her native tongue. Adeptly translated from the Spanish, this fictional novel is the latest in a line of popular books including The House of Spirits (1982), Eva Luna (1987), Island Beneath the Sea (2010), Ripper (2014) and the nonfiction Paula (1994).
The Japanese Lover explores the life of one family and includes historical references and major issues as it sprawls over the decades. It centers on Alma Mendel, a young girl whose family had the foresight, and means, to ensure her escape from the oncoming horrors of Nazism. In 1939, they send her from Warsaw to wealthy and influential relatives in San Francisco. Her parents remain behind, suffer through the German invasion and eventually perish in the Holocaust.
Once settled in with her aunt and uncle in a Bay Area mansion, Alma leads a privileged life. She develops a close childhood relationship with Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family's beloved Japanese gardener. Given the generosity and compassion of Alma's family, this relationship is not merely tolerated but encouraged. The family seemed to have avoided catching the disease of prejudice. (In a sign of support for the gardener, for example, the family anonymously funds a partnership with him to start a nursery.) In addition to a budding friendship that extends beyond childhood, there may also have been some early embraces and an innocent exploration of sex between Alma and Ichimei.
This youthful idyll is interrupted by an ugly reality, the onset of World War II and the brutal internment of the Japanese population on the U.S. West Coast. Allende gives a low-key but nonetheless gripping account of this sanctioned villainy. Internment had the approval of this country's chain of command all the way up to President Roosevelt. It has never been honestly acknowledged for the injustice it represented, especially considering the loyalty the Japanese had shown for this country. Nisei battalions of Japanese-American soldiers fought the Axis in Europe and chalked up the highest number of fatalities per capita of any Allied troops. (In an anomaly that begs further scrutiny, Japanese residents of Hawaii, where U.S. involvement with World War II began at Pearl Harbor, were not interred.).
Getting back to the story, we meet the octogenarian Alma as a resident of Lark House, an upscale and eccentric continuing-care community. Through a series of flashbacks, we discover Alma and Ichimei have remained in contact on and off throughout their lives. Alma marries her cousin, Nathaniel Belasco, in what is a marriage of convenience. The marriage is grounded by respect, but lacks the true ardor of a romantic relationship.
Her grandson Seth has an incredibly close relationship with Alma. He looks after her and makes almost daily visits. That allows Seth to court a young Moldovan immigrant, Irina Bazili, who works at Lark House and who serves as an assistant/secretary to Alma. Irina has until now led a life of enforced dissolution that includes child pornography and sex slave trafficking. It will take Seth years of platonic love to penetrate Irina's psychic defenses. At the same time, Seth and Irina try to find out how and where Alma disappears for periods of time in what they assume to be assignations with her beloved Ichimei
Alma has made the most of her life, using her artistic and design talents to create a successful specialty fashion business. Ichimei, whose family includes a beautiful, young wife from Japan, has commercialized his genuine love for gardening, particularly the gardenia, the flower delivered weekly to Alma at Lark House. Reserved, soft-spoken and not given to discernible emotions, Ichimei is probably the least developed of the main characters.
Although Seth and Irina uncover some of Alma's secrets, and she reveals some others, there are surprises to come. I'll say no more lest I ruin the various endings.
If you want a pleasant and intelligent read on the road this spring, one that doesn't strain the brain cells, I think you'll enjoy The Japanese Lover. And satisfied with my first foray into her work, I plan to read several of Allende's earlier bestsellers.
The Japanese Lover is available at Amazon.com in hardcover and paperback as well as Kindle, Audible and CD versions.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.