Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 301 pages)
“Sometimes you just have to go for it. Try for what’s hardest to accomplish.”
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a charming tale about what’s hardest to accomplish – accepting the choices one has made in life. The story is about Henry Lee, a Chinese-American boy who attends a white school in Seattle during World War II. There he meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl (born in the U.S.A.) who becomes the love of his life before she’s taken away to an internment camp. Henry vows to wait forever for Keiko’s return only to marry another – the mother of his son – while thinking each day about what’s happened to the beautiful Keiko.
Life goes on until 1986 when the long-closed Panama hotel – a place where Japanese-Americans lived in the 1940’s – is scheduled for renovation. Then things are found… things which belonged to the families that were forced to leave with only a single bag per family member. These events prompt Henry to re-examine his life and his choices and to commit himself to finally finding Keiko.
The author Jamie Ford is himself Chinese-American (his great grandfather was Min Chung, a miner who came to the U.S. in 1865) and well describes the tenets of Chinese and Japanese culture. His writing is often inspiring and philosophical: “Henry understood. Honestly he did. He knew what it was like to leave something behind. To move on and live the future and not relive the past.” But this well-publicized first novel would have benefited from a better job of editing. At one point, the adult Henry’s wife is quite ill and their son wants Henry to place her in a hospice. Henry refuses and elects to take care of her at home and with the assistance of in-home (visiting) hospice workers. But then we read that the dying Ethel wants to “leave this place” and go home. Clearly there’s confusion here and in a few other places in the book. (The son supposedly reads about his mother’s death on the internet while he’s in college in 1986.)
Nonetheless, this is a quite worthwhile read. Like The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz, it takes us away from the standard American family we typically read about and places us among those with different values and belief systems. Having grown up among Japanese and Chinese-Americans, I know that so much of what Ford has written here rings absolutely true.
I generally attempt to avoid quoting the remarks of others about a particular book but author Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) said of Hotel, “(This is) a tender and satisfying novel set in a time and place lost forever.” True, and this novel is a satisfying celebration of life and living. It reminds us that “beautiful endings (can) still be found at the end of cold, dreary days.”
Note: This book was purchased by the reviewer.