March 3, 2017 by femvestige
I’ve just finished reading The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. This book is absolutely beautiful in it’s construction. It is dense, and yet it reads light. The characters are unlikable and utterly lovable.
The book follows Alma Belasco, an 81 year old wealthy woman in a retirement home called Lark House. She befriends and hires a young Maldovan caregiver Irina to assist her in sorting out the memories of her life. Alma’s grandson Seth decides to write a book about Alma’s life – and so a story between three people grows and develops as we plunge back and forth between a present day 81 year old Alma, and the many Alma’s of the past.
Focusing the story in both past and present is the Japanese lover, Ichimei Fukuda. Alma first meets Ichi when she travels from Europe in the early 1940’s to live with her Uncle Issac and Aunt Lillian Belasco in order to save herself from the coming perils. She immediately connects with their son Nathaniel, and Ichi – the son of the Belasco’s gardener. What begins as a childhood friendship grows to be a very complicated and life long love affair. Interspersed throughout the book in no specific order are letters written by Ichimei to Alma throughout their life.
Alma takes Seth and Irina through her history, deliberately not telling them about Ichimei in present day even though the memories the reader experiences come directly from Alma’s head. We get the full story in rich details, while the spoken Alma gives Seth and Irina only pieces of what the reader learns until the very end. Meanwhile, Seth and Irina navigate their own waters as they both research and investigate Alma’s clandestine relationship with Ichi. Seth is in love with Irina, and Irina has her own traumatic past to deal with.
Alma’s life is truly extraordinary – we learn about the experience of corresponding with a Japanese family in an internment camp in America during the war. We learn about the shift in American morals as the age of free love, civil rights, and women abortions come to light. We learn about marrying out of duty and protection rather than for love. We learn about sexuality, or lack thereof. Meanwhile, Alma self-admits to being a shallow woman who cannot bring herself to marry for love if it means giving up a life of wealth for a life of poverty.
The Japanese Lover is an absolute tapestry, where things are in chronological order and where things are completely jumbled with no pattern. And yet, it is a masterpiece of family systems. How does a family of wealth evolve over time, and what does their family system look like with nanny’s and chauffeurs, versus a small family of poverty working together to run a business in order to survive. The relationships that Alma develops throughout her life, and the relationships we see develop between Alma, Seth, and Irina are deep, complicated, and individual.
Best of all is the magic realism. Isabel Allende is known for writing in this style in all of her books – and yet it is so subtle in this novel that it’s almost unnoticeable. For those who do not know, magic realism is the use of the mythical, supernatural or fantastic elements in realistic fiction. For example, in Lark House, it is well known that a mother who passed away there named Emily haunts the grounds with her lost child. I identify with this concept and I always appreciate when I notice it’s use.
The book is long, but it is an endearing experience that makes you laugh, makes you sigh, makes you feel hollow, and makes you feel full. Allende touches on many topics ranging from casual substance abuse, sex trafficking, and child pornography to abortion, race, disabilities, and homosexuality. It has it all, with deep character development that will make you miss them when you are done.
Rating out of 5: ✮✮✮✮
Genre: Fiction/ Magic Realism
Dates Read: 02/25/17 – 03/03/17
Character Development: A+
Best Feature: Seamless coexisting plot lines
Worst Feature: slow pace