Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Julie's Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Summary: In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago. Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.
Review: I love stories that cross generations and time periods, so it really should come as no surprise that I adored Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel. This beautifully written story is about love, family, growing up and finding what you've missed the most in life. I had been eyeing this book from Amazon and all over the blogosphere so when Tracee from Pump Up Your Book Promotion contacted me about doing a review and author Q&A, I was thrilled!!! Let's just say that all the hype around this book is well deserved. I loved the point of view the story was told from, Henry's and I thoroughly enjoyed how it went back and forth between the 1940s and the 1980s. I like how we get to know Henry when he's older and reflecting on his life. This very much reminded me of how Water for Elephants: A Novel and The House at Riverton: A Novel were told. I think in telling a story from this perspective it lends itself to being introspective as well as retrospective.

Henry from the get go is a very likable character. You immediately feel for him even if you've never had the same experiences as him. All of us at one point in our lives has felt like an outsider. Really, that's what Henry is, both at school and at home. Then he meets Keiko, a young Japanese American and almost immediately feels at home with her. They begin a very strong and lasting friendship. I was also taken in very quickly by Keiko. Their friendship is cemented the night they decide to go to the Black Elks Club to listen to Jazz music. Their experience there defines them for the rest of their lives.

In a part of American history that is not written about or discussed that often, the Japanese families are rounded up and taken to interment camps. This is under the guise of their own safety but I'm sure the US government had other agendas in mind. Of course Keiko and her family are taken to Camp Harmony and his destroys Henry. He can't think of anything else and ends up damaging his relationship with his parents. I believe this is the pivotal point in the story; this is where Henry becomes a man.

I can't really say too much more about the story without giving it away but I will say that not only are the main characters likable but almost all of the supporting characters give a great deal to the story. One of my favorite dynamics is between Henry and his father. What a struggle to be caught between two worlds! Henry's father wants him to be American but yet wants him to be Chinese. While I can't personally relate to this, I can imagine that it was this way for a lot of immigrant families who's children were the first generation to be born in America.

While there isn't a single scene that stands out, besides perhaps the ending to me, its how the story flows and unfolds that kept me entranced. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a part of American history that isn't talked about. It's also a beautiful love story.

Final Take: 5/5


Jamie Ford May 27, 2009 at 1:48 PM  

Hi Julie, thanks for the lovely review. I'll stop by later...if anyone has questions, always happy to answer.



Stephanie May 27, 2009 at 5:06 PM  

Great review!!

I reviewed your book two weeks ago on my blog and gave a copy away. I was really impressed with your story and wanted to know how your own life experience of being mixed race played into your storytelling. The reason I ask is because my husband is Chinese, therefore my oldest daughter is half white/half Chinese.

Jamie Ford May 27, 2009 at 9:36 PM  

Hi Steph,

Being 1/2 Chinese definitely informed those feelings of being different. There were times with my Chinese relatives where I didn't feel Chinese enough and vice versa.

It's an odd thing, because occasionally you feel like you have to choose. I remember filling out a college application and there was a box for white and a box for Asian, and I kept looking for something in between. People had told me that you are whatever you identify yourself as--like Obama, who is half-black, but identifies as black. I just wanted to be half...I always felt stuck in the middle. It wasn't until I moved to Hawaii that I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. They have a word, "Hapa" which means half, and it seemed like EVERYONE in Hawaii was hapa, which was soooo cool.

In the end, I'm really glad to have an ethnic heritage I can appreciate. I think it helps give you a sense of where you come from, be it China or Ireland or New Jersey. Be proud of who you are.

Julie May 27, 2009 at 9:51 PM  

Interesting Jamie. My kids are 1/2 black and 1/2 white and my husband and I always talk about the college application issue. I guess when it comes down to it they'll pick what they feel is right. Maybe by then they be able to chose more than one ethnicity.

Sheila (bookjourney) August 5, 2009 at 12:58 AM  

Ok... this is another one I am thinking on.... it looks and sounds wonderful!

Anna December 21, 2009 at 3:44 PM  

I can't wait to read this one. Thanks for the review. I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

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