The Japanese LoverBy Isabel Allende
The Japanese Lover is a love story steeped in history, using San Francisco as a backdrop for its measured progression.
The book opens with Irina, a care aide at Lark House, a seniors’ home in San Francisco. Irina’s life begins in poverty in her native Moldova. As an immigrant to the U.S., Irina finds that she thrives caring for elderly people and she quickly becomes the most popular staff member at Lark House. So popular in fact, that Alma Belasco, a wealthy resident, asks Irina to become her personal assistant during her off-shift hours. Irina, we learn, has a checkered past, but little is revealed about that for some time.
Once Irina begins working for Alma, the narrative shifts and the main storyline quickly becomes about Alma’s life, which begins in Poland in the 1930s. Later, as Hitler rises to power, Alma is quickly shipped off to relatives in San Francisco.
She eventually grows attached to the American Belasco family, who raises her as a daughter. At their Sea Cliff mansion, Alma meets Ichimei Fukuda, son of Takeo, the estate gardener. A close friendship blossoms, but soon the Fukudas are removed to a Japanese internment camp.
Here the narrative switches tracks again, and we learn of the Fukudas’ life as prisoners on American soil. A thriving family of five when they enter, the Fukudas’ tragic circumstances create rifts that cannot be healed.
Ultimately, these intertwining storylines lead us to the passionate and undying love between Alma and Ichimei. Their relationship blossoms as they grow into adulthood, although they are often separated for many years at a time. But in the mid-twentieth century, interracial and inter-class love is still a taboo that neither lover can overcome.
Both Alma and Ichimei lead separate lives, but never forget the passion they share. Fast forward to Alma in her eighties. As Alma, her grandson Seth and Irina revisit her storied life, much is revealed about her marriage and her true love.
Irina’s story reveals itself over time. There are other characters, not mentioned here, who have stories of their own. The slow unfolding of the narrative continually made me want to read on.
If there’s anything lacking in the novel it’s Allende’s reluctance to delve too deeply into the characters’ emotional lives. Nevertheless, The Japanese Lover links family, marriage, love, history and tragedy and kept me interested right up until the end.