What a beautiful love story!
Synopsis via Audible.com:
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut, 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.
Henry was a boy torn between the Chinese world of his parents, and the American world he was living in. His parents said they wanted him to be American, but none of them really understood what that meant, or what effect this would have on their relationship.
Through Henry’s relationship with Keiko, the reader learns more about who Henry really is, even at that young age, but also gets a portrait of the complexity of living at that time– the tensions between white and Asians, but also between those of Chinese and Japanese ancestry.
I particularly liked the different ways that we saw Henry– As a young boy, as he grows up tremendously over the course of several years, as an older adult, but also through the eyes of his adult son, and through his actions towards others, particularly his friends.
The contrast between how his adult son sees him and how he sees himself was particularly enlightening, illustrating how he continued through his life to be torn between America and his father’s world of China.
The lengths that young Henry went to in order to try to preserve his link with Keiko (and the naivete displayed in his plans) were touching. Everything that he lost during this time (and how it compared to all that Keiko lost) was thought provoking.
Most of all, the writing was always compelling, truly delivering Henry’s story to the reader.
Book Club Notes
My Book Club M met over Chinese Food to talk about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I think we all enjoyed the book, although (as usual) some more than others (I was towards the top of the “loved it” scale).
We had a good discussion, ranging from the character and how they were presented, the era and the challenges (both the obvious and the subtle); comparisons with other books about WWII and the Japanese Internment in particular. It was a solid conversation, if not a standout for the group, and I’d recommend the book for other clubs.
Narrator: Feodor Chin was unobtrusive in his delivery of this book, allowing the author’s words to come to the forefront. He dealt well with Henry’s parents Chinese accent, emphasizing the differences in the generations. His narration was a wonderful choice for this book.
Audio Production: No issues, no extras.
Print vs. Audio: This book worked well in audio, but I suspect it would be wonderful in print as well. Pick the format that is most convenient for you.
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