Tag Archives: The Commoner

A Bittersweet Story

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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.”


Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer.


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Something Completely Different…

Commoner 5Sometimes we need a change from the popular fiction novels set in the U.S.   One book that offers a definite change of time and scenery is the forthcoming Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife), set in London.   Another is The Commoner, a novel recently released in trade paperback form.   This story takes us to post World War II Japan and moves us through a period of more than 55 years.   The author, John Burnham Schwartz, knows a lot about what he writes as he lived in Japan as a younger man; something he wrote about in his earlier novel Bicycle Days.

Schwartz does a fine job of creating a different world, emphasizing the unique features of Asian culture such as humility, respect, duty and class differences.   The latter comes into play as this is the tale of a young woman – a commoner – who is selected to marry the Crown Prince of Japan.   Initially, the proposal of marriage is rejected but Haruko Endo is compelled by duty to family and country to accept the offer from a future monarch.

It is very clear that Haruko will have difficulties once she enters the Imperial Palace grounds and joins the Royal Family.   One of the significant issues facing her is the fact that she was not the choice of the Empress, a domineering woman who usually gets her way.   Schwartz is at his best in creating the characters of the two families, both royal and common.   As a former gaijin, he does an excellent job of describing the very different world that is Japan, from its streets to its food to its birds, plants and flowers.   He even describes smells that he links with this different country.

The story flows freely for 351 pages and is quite a satisfying one for the reader.   But there are a few issues.   First, Schwartz’s writing is generally fluid but every now and then a rough spot appears.   For example, “The (fertility) test, in short said that one could; to be followed by the wedding, which declared that one must.”   Perhaps this would read better in Japanese; it comes across as severely awkward in English.

Secondly, there appear to be some problems in the editing down of the tale.   We learn that the Empress who precedes Haruko lives for a hundred years until she dies a natural death, and yet twice we see references to her “assassin.”   No assassination attempt is included in the story, and the reader has to wonder if and when it was deleted.

Finally, this is one of those unfortunate cases where the entire story is too well summarized on the rear book cover.   If you purchase this book, avoid reading the notes on the cover or everything will be given away too soon.  

All in all, I much enjoyed this unique trip to the Land of the Rising Sun as written by the Japanese-speaking and English-writing Schwartz.   A good read!

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Coming Up Next…

Commoner sm.A review of The Commoner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz.

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