The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Genre: Historical Fiction
Told through a mixture of traditional exposition and letters from the eponymous Japanese lover, Allende’s The Japanese Lover is at once a tale of a great romance and a story of tragedy. While technically I’ve categorized this book as historical fiction, a good deal of it takes place in contemporary California at Lark House, a senior living community. The historical part happens at various points from World War II onward through the 1960s and beyond, and this part is told from the perspective of Alma Belasco, an aging artist and philanthropist who has recently chosen to make her home at Lark House.
Alma is essentially our main character, though Irina Bazili (a care worker at Lark House) is also center stage for much of the book. She has gone through so much in her life and I couldn’t help but like her. She was strong, creative, and independent, and she always followed her passions (even if she didn’t always do so immediately). I admired her character and envied her lifelong love for Ichimei Fukuda. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing too much, but I will say that her relationship with Ichimei frequently perplexed me and I wasn’t always able to support it, even knowing that she truly did love him.
Irina comes with her own backstory and issues, but I identified with her at the start immediately. Even though she was a young woman, she felt comfortable spending time with senior citizens because of all the time she spent with her own grandparents. I frequently feel the same way, and I enjoyed having this connection with Irina. That was where all similarities ended, though — Irina’s story is sad and she has issues that I can’t even imagine having to deal with. I liked having Irina’s story in the book, but I didn’t feel like she really needed to be as much of a star. For me, this book was all about Alma (and, by extension, Ichi).
The men in The Japanese Lover were less successful for me. Issac was almost too good, and so was Nathaniel (though by the end, I think I did understand his character a little more). Similarly, Ichimei was so understanding and kind, and while I’m sure there are men like this, his personality seemed to be at odds with the circumstances surrounding his relationship with Alma. I’m not sure how to reconcile his honor-seeking personality with having a secret love affair. I wish this had been done a little differently. The other main male character, Seth Belasco, Alma’s grandson and Irina’s would-be suitor, was also a little more patient and understanding than I would have expected, though I think he was a little better balanced than Ichi or Isaac. The women are definitely the stronger characters in this novel, with more complexity throughout.
I gave this book four stars because I loved the concept and the story, and I really liked learning about the characters, but the men were a little weak for me. This was my first book by Isabel Allende, and if the rest of her books are on par with (or better than) this, I’m looking forward to diving in to the rest of her work.