Friday, May 29, 2009

Review - Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
published 1/09
290 pages

Synopsis from 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.

My thoughts:

It's hard to think of something original to say about one of the most blogged-about books in recent history. Has there been a bad review for this novel? If so, I haven't read it. I have, however, read "it's the best book I've read all year"; "this goes on my list of all-time favorites"; "what an amazing novel"; etc, etc. High expectations? Yep, I've got them.

In a completely unexpected turn of events, this book actually lived up to the hype. I really was engrossed from the first chapter. I honestly felt drawn in to the emotions of the characters. I certainly didn't want it to end. So what can I tell you about this novel?

Should I tell you about the love Henry shared with Ethel, his recently-deceased wife, who knew him better than anyone, but didn't know the truth about Keiko?

"Henry looked around to see if anyone might be watching him having this odd, one-way conversation. He was all alone - he wasn't even sure if Ethel was listening. It was one thing to talk to her at home, where she'd lived. But out here, in the cold ground next to his parents, she was certainly gone. Still, Henry had needed to come out to say goodbye.
He kissed the quarter and placed it on top of Ethel's headstone. This was our promise of happiness, Henry thought. It's all I have left to give. This is so you can be happy without me."

Or maybe I should discuss Henry's confusing, angry, distant relationship with his father, who wants the best for his son, but can't give up his loyalty to his homeland long enough to really discover what that might be.

"His father pointed at the door. 'If you walk out that door - if you walk out that door now; you are no longer part of this family. You are no longer Chinese. You are not part of us anymore. Not a part of me.'
Henry didn't even hesitate. He touched the doorknob, feeling the brass cold and hard in his hand. He looked back, speaking his best Cantonese. 'I am what you made me, Father.' He opened the heavy door. ' an American.' "

Certainly, I should tell you about the beautiful, innocent relationship of Henry and Keiko - a friendship, born out of shared foreignness, that blossoms into something so much deeper. One of the most beautiful love stories I've ever read.

"Henry watched and waited until he saw a beautiful slip of a girl walk up the muddy path in a faded yellow dress, red galoshes covered in mud, and a brown raincoat. She stood on the other side of the fence, her smiling face, pale from food poisoning, framed by cold metal and sharp wire. A captured butterfly."

Here's the best thing I can say - whenever someone asks me what to read next, I'll ask if they've experienced Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That's just about the highest praise I can give.

Finished: 5/27/09
Source: Pump Up Your Book Promotions blog tour
Rating: 10/10

Don't just take my word for it! Here's what some other fabulous bloggers had to say:

Literary Feline
Dreadlock girl (aka b&b ex libris)
Medieval Bookworm
Devourer of Books
Bookworm's Dinner
The Friendly Book Nook
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
Redlady's Reading Room
Bibliophile by the Sea


Kristen M. said...

I'm definitely going to get this one. I always look for well-written novels about subjects or time periods I know little about and this one fits the bill.

Belle said...

Great review. I was on the fence about this book, but I loved the quotes you included and what you've said in this review.

Zibilee said...

I am thinking of trying to get this book chosen as our book club selection. I, too, have heard only positive things about it, and would really like to get the chance to share it with my group. Thanks for the awesome review!

Literary Feline said...

I am so glad you enjoyed this one! And I have to add, excellent review! I really liked this one too. It wasn't quite what I expected in some ways, but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of it.

Elizabeth said...

Kristen - oh, this one is so good! I hope you enjoy it.

Belle - Honestly, I couldn't believe it would live up to the hype, but it totally did.

Zibilee - Oh, I think it would be a great choice for a book club. Lots of good stuff to discuss.

Literary Feline - thanks!