“There’s a difference between being old and being ancient. It doesn’t have to do with age, but physical and mental health,” Cathy explained. “Those who are old can remain independent, but those who are ancient need help and supervision; there comes a moment when they’re like children again.”
Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, brings us into the luxurious and artistic world of Alma Mendel, the matriarch of the wealthy San Francisco Belasco family. Facing the end of her life, Alma leaves behind the mansion where she has lived since she was a child in favor of the Lark House, a surreal retirement home where yoga classes and political demonstrations interrupt conversations about voluntary euthanasia and pot smoke curls out from underneath the closed doors of its ageing residents.
Like Allende, Alma is an immigrant, and one of the themes of the novel is America from the perspective of the new American. Alma’s story unfolds as she befriends another immigrant, a young Romanian named Irina Bazili who has taken a job as a caretaker at the Lark House. When Alma hires Irina to be her personal secretary and help her sort out her few remaining possessions, curiosity draws Irina into teaming up with Alma’s grandson Seth to solve the mysteries of Alma’s life. Who keeps sending Alma the letters and flowers that arrive weekly in her small apartment? Where does Alma go when she quietly disappears for the weekend? Seeking escape from the trauma of her own dark past, Irina loses herself in pulling together the Belasco family history.
It is through Irina that we learn about Alma’s past as a young Polish girl sent her to her American aunt to be saved from the Nazis. She could easily be a tragic figure, but Allende cleverly places her in a privileged and loving family, drawing both the reader and Alma into the beautiful mansion of Sea Cliff, where Alma finds a lifelong friendship with the gardener’s son, Ichimei Fukuda. By the time the news of her parents’ inevitable death in the concentration camps arrives, it’s nearly a footnote to Alma’s new American life.
But the war isn’t done with Alma. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Fukudas lose their life savings and home and are taken to an internment camp to wait out the war. Although Alma and Ichimei continue to exchange letters, his are so badly censored by the camp administrators as to be illegible. Alma’s life at Sea Cliff continues, but the grief at their separation deepens Alma’s bond with Ichimei.
The Belascos’ garden remained deaf to the defamatory propaganda campaign against the Japanese, who were accused of unfair competition against American farmers and fishermen, threatening white women’s virtue with their insatiable lust, and corrupting American society by their Oriental, anti-Christian ways. Alma only found out about these slurs two years after she had arrived in San Francisco, when from one day to the next the Fukuda family became the “yellow peril.” By that time she and Ichimei were inseparable friends.
Like Allende’s other novels, The Japanese Lover is filled with life, which is refreshing way to depict the elderly inhabitants of the Lark House as they contend with the declining abilities of their bodies. At 336 pages, The Japanese Lover is practically a novella by Allendean standards, but it fits in the broad range of themes of her longer novels, which made parts of the narrative feel rushed. There are several points where the story suffers for the brevity, but mostly in the romance between Alma and Ichimei. Despite the title, Ichimei is a flat character, a remote figure that creeps in and out of the edges of the story. Although Ichimei plays such an important role in Alma’s life, their relationship lacks the solidity of a true romance and feels more like a romantic dream.
And yet. And yet, it is still an Allende novel, filled with realistically flawed characters who must confront the darkest realities of human behavior. At the end, the real point of the novel is obvious: that there are many kinds of love that see us through our lives and that to live without love is the greatest tragedy of all.
- Publisher: Atria Books
- Publish Date: November 3, 2015
- Hardcover: 322 pages
- ISBN: 1501116975
- Language: English
- Rating: 3 of 5 stars