I’m so glad I finally got over myself and read my first book by Isabel Allende – The Japanese Lover, published in 2015. I really think it was the right place to start with her fiction too, since I was instantly drawn into the book – which is something I find doesn’t happen very often to me. The Japanese Lover is mostly historical fiction – it’s set in the present day but the larger part of the novel is memories told through Alma, one of the protagonist of the book. Alma is being sent away from Poland during the World War II, separated from her family to stay with her relatives, until things calm down. Her relatives are well off, her uncle a lawyer with a big heart, her aunt a kind and loving woman with a sense for propriety, her cousin a potential friend and brother. We see her settling down into this new home, this new country (the US), this place of possibility but also of a certain sense of not belonging. The present time shows us an old Alma, somewhere in her late seventies, as she has moved into a care-home where Irina works. Irina is the other protagonist of the novel, chased by her own demons and haunted by her past, although she works more as a lense through which we see Alma’s story to a large extent. Irina, and Alma’s grandson Seth, try to figure out the past of this mysterious old woman who has given up so many of her belongings and her comfortable home in the Sea Cliff, to spend her last years in an elderly home. Irina and Seth try to figure out who the Japanese man in the portrait is and what their relationship is, and if he’s the sender of the mystery letters and flowers Alma received once a week.
As I said, this book is mainly historical fiction. The majority of the book follows Alma’s memories from her childhood, her moving to America into the Belasco’s house, her adventures with Nathaniel (her cousin) and her meeting with the Japanese man, Ichimei. We see her through the years of the war, the 60s and 70s as she grows up, moves through new stages of her life. It’s not only Alma’s memories but the people in her life as well, although she is definitely the main focus of the novel.
Then there’s the present time in which Irina is dealing with her own issues, and then meeting Seth, meeting the people at Lark House – the elderly home where she works. There are actually quite a few characters in this novel, now that I think about it, and for me they are all distinct which means Allende does a great job of really creating dimension into each and every person included in the story. There’s Cathy the doctor of Lark House, Lenny an old friend from the past, Ichimei and Nathaniel of course, Seth, the cat Neko, Kirsten who works at Alma’s studio, Megumi – Ichimei’s sister, and many more.
I do think the characters were one reason why it felt so comforting to read this book, to return to this world – the world inside those pages. I had this feeling as soon as I stepped into Lark House, and I felt this way as I was listening side by side with Seth and Irina as Alma told her last memories to them. One of the things I complained of in another novel I read recently, Age of Miracles, where I felt I was held at arm’s length – this is the exact opposite. I felt included right from the start, I felt welcomed into this world and Allende’s writing.
I loved how she dealt with the theme of aging, of growing old and the emotional process of losing everything; the material things one collects over a life time but also the ability to do certain things – things like driving a car at first and then eventually things as fundamental as getting dressed. Losing the passion and losing the freedom that comes from having one’s body in one’s control, being able to walk out of a room, being able to call it quits when pain is all there is, being able to decide how to go. There’s one part of the novel where someone comments on how growing old is kind of like becoming a child again – becoming helpless and needing help even in the most simple errands, but it’s worse because the only future is a downward. For a child, that state won’t last forever. But growing old, you lose things one by one until there is nothing left of the person you were. There’s some incredible commentary on aging by Allende in this novel – this “second childhood” point is just one example. There’s also some thought on the assisted suicide or, there’s another word for it used in the book that I can’t remember at this point but I found it very interesting and valuable to read and think about.
The only thing I didn’t love in this book is that I feel like the timeline, or the different parts of Alma’s life and also other characters, didn’t come together fully. It kind of felt like the timeline didn’t work out, or that some things would’ve overlapped. That they just didn’t seamlessly make up the same persons past and history. The memories do jump around in time which is probably the reason for this “shattered” sort of feeling to it. I mean, I do think that for the most part this was an incredibly enjoyable book and that each memory and part of the story was well written. But I’m just not completely convinced it was all thought out before she started writing the book, like she came up with new parts further down the line, and so some of the things she’d written in the beginning didn’t work with the later things. I feel like I spotted a few contradictions, but I’m not a hundred percent sure so don’t hold me to it.
But overall, I will say this was an incredibly enjoyable reading experience. Allende is certainly an excellent story teller, and I will gladly put my foot into another one of her worlds, hopefully with that same sense of comfort I felt while reading The Japanese Lover.
Until next time,