Friday, March 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

by Isabel Allende
Atria Books     2015
322 pages    Literary Fiction

Isabel Allende says that the spark for the novel, The Japanese Lover, was inspired by a story told to her by a friend. It was the tale of a lifelong friendship between the friend's mother and her Japanese gardener—a friendship of over 40 years. Allende, who apparently finds a love story under every rock, imagined that the two were lovers and the plot of the book took shape. More interesting details about how the book emerged can be found on the Stuff website.

Alma Belasco is in her 80s and has moved into a retirement home, Lark House, which is not far away from her family estate. She befriends one of the attendants, Irina, and hires her to help her in putting her affairs together. Both women have huge back stories,  but they become trusted confidants, and as they work together each comes to an understanding of the love and the loss in their lives. 

Alma's grandson Seth is in love with Irina, a creature "straight of a Nordic saga." Irina, for her part, seems incapable of a romantic relationship, and the reader is unable to discover why until much later in the book, although there is a lot of foreshadowing when we meet her at the book's beginning. Irina and Seth set out to answer questions about the mysterious Alma, who they soon discover had a generations-old love affair with a Japanese gardener on the family estate. 

The events in the lives of both Alma and Irina are told in flashbacks and letters. There are some shocks, and much of the history of the last 75 years impinge on their lives. We are exposed to AIDS, sexual slavery, child pornography, immigration, and Japanese internment camps, all happening to the characters of the book. The reviewer in the LA Times calls the characters "tragedy-prone." And yet, Alma serenely prepares for her life's end without sharing much of her story. It has to be dragged out of her. In the same way, Irina's tragic story has to be wrung out of her, as well.

The Japanese Lover has its moments, but on the whole, I was not too impressed. Part of this is my cynicism regarding unrequited love, which this book has a lot of. It was hard to believe that Alma's husband Nathanial went along with the idea of her life-long lover, Ichimei, or that Seth so patiently waited for Irina to love him. By the time the last tragedy is revealed, the reader is pretty much going, "Oh for God's sake! Not this!" Just another tragedy to check off the list.

The benefit of the book, I believe, is its realistic look at the aging process. While Lark House is more quirky than some retirement homes, the novel acknowledges the idea that everyone in a retirement home, or out in the world, has a life story that needs to be understood and celebrated. The end of life should be a time to tie up all the loose ends and meditate on life's meaning.

The Japanese Lover did not get very good reviews. However, Allende has had an illustrious career as a writer, including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2014. The Japanese Lover is the first of her books that I have read. She writes in Spanish, which I found interesting, although she has lived in the United States for most of her adult life. Her style has been called "mystical realism." Her own life appears to be as mystical as her novels. 

We will be talking about The Japanese Lover at book club next week. What stories will we tell each other?


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