This month’s book club selection was Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.
Originally, I planned on skipping it. I read the description:
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.
And I just wasn’t feeling it. I was right in the middle (53% according to Kindle) of 11/22/63 (drop everything. read this book now) and it’s very hard to put down. Plus, it seems incredibly sad, and it’s August, and I didn’t want to be sobbing on the beach. A friend of mine assured me it was a quick read, so I gave it a go, and I’m glad I did.
The book starts out a little slow. Readers are following Henry, a fifty-six year old who’s just lost his wife after a prolonged battle with cancer. He’s got one son he’s struggling to find common ground with and a past he’s trying to come to terms with. While out walking one day, he notices that the old Panama Hotel has captured the attention of passerby and the local media, so he ventures in and discovers what all the commotion is about.
The hotel’s new owners have unearthed the belongings left behind by Seattle area Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. The items evoke a memory in Henry, and the book takes off.
The story vacillates between past and present as it recounts Henry’s youth as the child of Chinese immigrant parents forcing him to both “be American” and adhere to the customs of his ancestors. He feels out of place among both his Chinese and American peers until he meets Keiko.
I won’t give much away, but Henry’s young life was changed forever when Keiko and her family were sent, along with the rest of the Japanese-Americans in the area, to an internment camp hours away. Henry and Keiko both struggle with trying to reconcile the lives they want with the lives that are unfolding before them. Ultimately, it’s a story of making choices and moving forward. Henry puts it best when he says, “The hardest choices in life aren’t between what’s right and what’s wrong but between what’s right and what’s best.”
The subplot of the story focuses on Henry and his son Marty. The two seemed to be linked only by their late wife and mother’s presence, but now it’s up to them to rediscover each other and reconnect on their own terms. Marty learns a lot about his father, but it’s Marty who forces Henry to rethink everything. A man who’s lived his whole life without stopping to think of what could have been now learns that maybe you can look back.
The book is a quick read, and it will more than likely tug on your heartstrings. While I didn’t cry on the beach, I did cry on my morning commute (public transportation, mind you) more than once. The love is genuine, the pain is palpable and the story is set in one of our country’s darkest hours. It’s hard not to get emotional.
The story reminds me of my all time favorite read, Love in the Time of Cholera in that it explores the often rough transition from the idealistic romanticism of youth and the practical realism that comes with age. Our first loves are entirely emotional and overwhelming and sometimes in direct contrast to the other things we (and those around us) want for our lives. Both books suggest that true love can (and often does) come from a very practical place. We form deep bonds with people who fit neatly and easily into our lives. We are drawn (for good reason) towards those who are compatible with us, and the love we create with those people is no less real or passionate because of it’s convenience. However, both books remind us that that all-consuming, passionate, irrational first love comes once in a lifetime if you’re lucky, and if it happens to come around again, it should not be taken lightly.
My only critique of the book is that most of the story is supposed to be told by a 12 year old, yet the writing is incredibly mature. It makes for a very eloquently told story, but it doesn’t feel authentic. It’s Ford’s first major work, so it seems likely that he’s yet to find his own voice, but when he does, I expect his books to get better and better.