The Japanese Lover: A Novel - Isabel Allende

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.


                What makes a family?  What makes a relationship?  Allende’s novel is, in part, mediation on these questions.  The story starts with Irina who gains a job working at a retirement home/ assisted living facility.  She gains a boyfriend of a sort, and eventually a long term job with Alma, a semi-retired artist who lives in her rooms with a cat.  Hired as Alma’s assistant, Irina meets her grandson Seth, and the two becoming increasingly interested about Alma’s past, and slowly the past is pulled out from behind the curtain, in part because of the mysterious letters and flowers that arrive as well as Seth’s interest in family history.


                Alma’s arrival in the United States occurred when her family sends her from their Polish home as the Nazis rise to power.  Alma finds a new home with her aunt and uncle.  In many ways, she becomes the favorite child of her uncle, a familiar trope to any long time reader of novels.  Alma also meets Icmeni, a Japanese boy.   The two are close friends until the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Ichimei and his family are forced to relocate to the internment camp. 


                In some ways, Allende’s novel is a typical romance of two outcasts relating to each other.  In other ways, it moves beyond that and is about finding something – oneself, a place, a peace, a something.  Both Alma and Incemi are outcasts, and their immigrant status is not the only thing that makes them such.  But in other ways, they are each prisoners to what tradition demands.   Alma to her status in the country, and Ichimei to what his father wants him to be, what his mother wants and needs him to be, what Alma needs him to be.  


                The relationship between Alma and Ichimei is in some ways mirrored by the blossoming relationship between Seth and Irina, whose way is somewhat smoother than that of Alma’s and some ways not.  If Byatt’s Possession was the dual of story of a literary romance that led to a love between two lovers of literature, Allende’s novel is of a romance that enlightens those that encounter it.  It is a love that lends its strength to other loves.


                What makes Allende’s novel more than an ordinary romance, outside of the realism refuses to kow-tow romantic tropes and the idea that love conquers all, is Allende’s use of language?  There is such beauty in her writing that it makes what in some ways would be an ordinary love strong a la Hallmark movie into an Oscar worthy production.


                But it isn’t just the language.


                There is something deeper at work in the novel, like the art that Alma produces.  It isn’t the gothic style of Joyce Carol Oates, but something lighter, something peaceful.  Perhaps it is about finding peace and discovering peace so that one can move forward, that though uncovering the past or at least comes to terms with that past.  It’s about words and ideas that are not limited to one simple definition.