Opening the first pages of the new Isabel Allende novel is like running into a beloved friend. The best-selling Chilean-American author begins with a few intriguing details, and soon you find yourself captivated by her irresistible characters and stories.
The Japanese Lover moves between present and past, from our era to World War II; fortunately, Allende invests just as much color and emotion into the contemporary plotline as the historic period, which makes for a highly satisfying read.
The novel opens in San Francisco at an assisted living facility called Lark House: “Founded in the mid-twentieth century to offer shelter with dignity to elderly persons of slender means, for some unknown reason from the beginning it had attracted left-wing intellectuals, oddballs, and second-rate artists.” Irina Bazili, a 23-year-old from Moldova, takes a job assisting the residents, and through her we are introduced to the artistic and enigmatic Alma Belasco.
Widowed, independent and wealthy, Alma prefers to live out her life among strangers than with her bourgeois son and his family. She hires Irina as a part-time assistant to help her and her grandson Seth record family history. Noting that her grandson is growing interested in the intelligent but unpolished Irina, “Alma set herself the task of providing Irina with a veneer of culture, taking her to concerts and museums, lending her grown-up books to read instead of those absurdly lengthy novels about fantasy worlds and supernatural creatures that she so enjoyed and teaching her proper manners, including how to handle cutlery at the table.” Allende gradually develops Seth and Irina’s relationship as they delve into Alma’s past and discover her secrets.
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Born in Poland into a Jewish family, Alma is sent by her parents to the United States as the threat of Nazism grows. At her Uncle Isaac and Aunt Lillian’s estate, Sea Cliff, in San Francisco, Alma becomes tormented by nightmares. When her aunt discusses sending her to a child psychologist, Isaac Belasco shrewdly notes, “Childhood is a naturally unhappy period of our existence, Lillian. It was Walt Disney who invented the notion that it has to be happy, simply to make money.” One of the pleasures of reading Allende is that she doesn’t create throwaway or two-dimensional characters and gives secondary characters some of the novel’s most interesting observations.
Irina uncovers an emotional triangle that existed between Alma, her cousin Nathaniel and the Japanese gardener’s son, Ichimei; Alma comes to rely on both for companionship and understanding. While Allende concentrates on the inner lives of her characters, she also excels at portraying the historic context behind events as World War II that soon transforms their lives. Ichimei and his family are rounded up and imprisoned in an American internment camp. With perfect understatement, Allende sketches their daily lives and deprivations: “At night there was no way to prevent the wind, which brought slivers of ice with it, from whistling through the cracks in the huts and lifting the roofs. Like everyone else, the Fukuda family slept in all their clothes, wrapped in the pair of blankets they had been given, curled up together on the camp beds to lend each other warmth and comfort.” After Ichimei and his family are released, he and Alma fall passionately in love and begin an affair.
From her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which started as a letter to her own grandfather, Allende has underscored the importance of diaries and letters in preserving memory. Scattered throughout the book are beautiful missives from Ichimei to Alma. Allende gives Ichimei his own distinct voice, as he expresses an unflagging devotion: “You have said that all of a sudden, without us realizing it, we have turned seventy. You are afraid our bodies will fail us, and of what you call the ugliness of age, even though you are more beautiful now than you were at twenty-three.”
From chapter to chapter, the author continues to reveal mysteries. We learn why Alma marries Nathaniel instead of Ichimei and the part racial prejudice plays in that decision. The reader also discovers why, despite Seth’s pursuit, Irina finds herself unable to trust any man. Certain revelations are disturbing, but love ultimately helps each woman survive. Like the incomparable storyteller she is, Isabel Allende does not release us from the novel’s spell until the last pages, with a brief but bittersweet hint of her famed magical realism.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.