Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

May 12, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): 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.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The author chose an interesting period in which to set this story. I didn’t know much about the Japanese internment camps before reading this book, but now have a better understanding of how widespread the roundup was and how many innocent lives were disrupted forever.
  • I thought it was interesting to have the story told from the POV of a Chinese-American. By virtue of his ethnicity, Henry appeared outwardly to be in the same position as the Japanese people of the area. One quick glance at him would tell others that he wasn’t “American” and ought not to be trusted. But at the same time, he wasn’t actually Japanese, so he wasn’t in the same kind of danger as Keiko and her family. He was caught squarely in the middle, and the author did a nice job detailing his struggles with this.
  • Some of Henry and Keiko’s adventures during and after school took me back to my own school days and a similar crush I had when I was in elementary school. It was nice to remember such an innocent time.

Disliked:

  • The story moves at a glacial pace throughout most of the book. Seriously, it took me about six months to get through this thing because there simply wasn’t anything going on that compelled me to finish. I always had another, more interesting book to turn to and could barely read more than 5-10 pages at a time of this one.
  • I disliked everything having to do with Sheldon, jazz clubs, music, records, etc. I suppose the author included those details to add to the feel of the period or whatever, but my eyes just glazed over whenever those topics came up. Ugh.
  • I had a hard time believing that Henry and Keiko were each other’s “true loves” from the age of 12. As I said, this book reminded me a little bit of a crush I had back in 6th grade, but come on… there’s no way I considered myself in love with the boy. And honestly, I just don’t think CHILDREN of that age could/would fall so deeply in love. Sure, there might be some real-life couples that have been together since their pre-teen years. But I would almost guarantee you that they started out as just a crush and that love took many years to blossom and develop. With the limited time that Henry and Keiko spent together, I don’t buy that they were in love. Call me cynical, I guess.
  • Henry’s son found Keiko by searching the Internet? In 1986???? Okay, I suppose a few people were using the Internet back then, but how much information was really available online at that time? It’s not like he had Google or Facebook, ya know?
  • I felt lukewarm about the ending. It was supposed to be happy and romantic and all that, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I just found it incredibly convenient that Keiko was a recent widow like Henry (Neither was even 60 yet, so it wouldn’t be THAT common to have lost spouses already) and was ready to welcome him with open arms. At least the author had the sense to end the story with their meeting at the door. This way, I can just imagine that they reconnected in the way that any two long-lost friends would, and that they didn’t necessarily pursue a relationship afterwards.

Rating:

From all the positive reviews I read beforehand, I was really expecting Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to be a fabulous novel that would make me smile and cry by turns. But that was hardly the case, as I could barely get into the story to begin with and didn’t connect with either of the main characters. The author’s writing style (it was so basic that I’m classifying this as a Young Adult book, even though I’m not sure that’s truly the case), the anachronisms, and some unbelievable plot points made this a very difficult book to even finish, let alone like. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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