I was drawn to Isabel Allende’s new novel, The Japanese Lover (Atria, 2015) because it sounded a lot like one of my favorite novels, Dana Sachs’ The Secret of the Nightingale Palace (William Morrow, 2013).
Both stories take place in the present and around WWII. Both star a Jewish woman and a Japanese man who fall in love just before the US government enacts the disastrous policy of the Japanese internment camps. Both stories focus on forbidden and secretive romantic relationships between these Jewish women and Japanese men. And both involve the octogenarian Jewish women in the present and their close relationships with their grown grandchildren. Oh, and both feature some type of art work.
I enjoyed The Japanese Lover and appreciated the taboo nature of the relationship between Alma, a Jewish refugee who fled Poland for the safety of her wealthy relatives’ home in San Francisco, and Ichimei, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener.
Alma and Ichi became fast friends soon after Alma arrives in San Francisco as a young girl. Her parents are still in Poland and would never get out alive. Alma’s first cousin, Nathaniel, also plays with the pair during their childhood.
Ichi and his family are sent to internment camps, but he and Alma begin a lasting correspondence. After Ichi returns from the internment camps, he and Alma start a romantic relationship. It’s taboo not just in both families, but according to US law, too. There is never any question about Ichi’s desire to marry Alma, but she balks at a future in a working class family after she’s grown up around great wealth. Ichi is understandably heartbroken and the two don’t speak to each other for almost a decade until Alma’s uncle passes away and Ichi attends his funeral.
By this point, Ichi and Alma are both married to other people. Allende goes to great lengths to describe the social taboo that is Alma and her first cousin Nathaniel’s marriage. But in fact, marriage between Jewish first cousins wasn’t only not taboo back in the 1950s, it was quite common. My family has had several marriages between first cousins on both my mom’s and dad’s sides. I’m not saying I would do that, but it wasn’t unusual before intermarriage became so popular.
As noted through Ichi’s letters to Alma that are sprinkled throughout the book, their relationship reignites, but both are careful to spare their spouses the pain of knowing about it. They love their spouses very much and divorce is never an option–out of choice–but they don’t deny their love for one another. It goes on for decades.
I felt there could have been more passion between Alma and Ichi. Their relationship never seemed as credible as it could have been. I read about it, but never really felt it. Nathaniel’s storyline felt more compelling, but I won’t spoil that (although it didn’t take me very long to figure that out).
I also thought there could have been more passion between Irina and Seth, Alma’s caregiver and her grandson, respectively. I never understood why Alma felt so drawn to Irina. It could have been because both fled Europe for the US as young girls. But I’m not sure.
Regardless of these flaws, I still enjoyed this story. It picked up more at the end and I found myself holding back tears. I could pretty much predict what was going to happen, but the very end was a surprise.