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Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Posted by gck Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: Historical romance fans, book clubs

Back-cover summary:
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.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry's world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While "scholarshipping" at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship - and innocent love - that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel's dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family's belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. 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.

My review:
I know I am giving extra points because of personal bias towards the subject matter. It was a pretty good read. I liked the setting the most -- 1940's in Seattle's International District and jazz clubs. It's also nice that the book shines a light on race relations at the time: Chinese vs. Japanese, the treatment of Japanese during the war, general Caucasian attitudes towards Asians, and attempted Asian assimilation into American culture. Reading the book motivated me to do some reading to find out more about Seattle's jazz history and the Japanese internment camps.

There was definitely a lot going on with the characters that was entirely too convenient, and some of the minor characters were pretty bland. The two characters that stood out to me the most were Sheldon and Mrs. Beatty. The author mentions in the interview at the end that they were his favorites, and that definitely comes through. (I didn't realize until the interview that the author was a man!) I also liked the challenges of the main character's relationship with his father. The father's behavior makes up probably the only moral ambiguity in the novel. Other than that, the good guys mostly do good things and the bad guys mostly do bad things.

Given the weight of the subject matter, it would be easy to pick up this book, have certain expectations about its substance, and be greatly disappointed. However, I enjoyed it as a very readable story set in a very interesting time and place.

1 Responses to Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

  1. I felt much the same about this book - it had lots of potential but was missing that special something.


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