The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Chilean author Isabel Allende is probably best known for her first novel The House of the Spirits, but since its publication in 1982 she has written over twenty other books, most recently last year’s In the Midst of Winter. The Japanese Lover (2015) is the first one I’ve read; I was drawn to it by its wartime setting and by the fact that, unlike some of her other books, it didn’t seem to include any magical realism, of which I’m not really a fan.

The novel opens in the present day with Irina Bazili, a young woman from Moldova, starting a new job at Lark House, a home for the elderly in San Francisco. Irina soon settles in, getting to know the old people in the home and forming a special bond with one of them, a woman called Alma Belasco who is able to live independently on the ground floor of the building but knows the day could soon come when she no longer can. When Irina is introduced to Seth, Alma’s grandson, the two are united in their concern for Alma and their curiosity over her occasional disappearances from Lark House. Eventually they piece together the story of Alma’s life, but this only happens gradually over the course of the entire novel.

When I first read the synopsis for this book I assumed it was a dual timeline novel with two alternating stories – Irina’s in the present day and Alma’s in the past. Well, it is, but not in the same way as dual timeline novels written by authors like Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton or Susanna Kearsley, for example. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a book with two distinct storylines, but more like a book set in the present with some chapters describing events from Alma’s past.

And Alma is a character with a very interesting past. At the beginning of the Second World War, she is sent away from her native Poland to stay with rich relatives in San Francisco and here she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener. As time goes by, Alma and Ichimei begin to fall in love, but when war finds its way to America and the Japanese become ‘the enemy’, the Fukudas are sent to an internment camp. The two young lovers are later reunited, only to be separated again, a pattern which will repeat itself several times over the decades and their relationship will endure despite Alma’s marriage to another man. It is this relationship which Irina and Seth find so intriguing and which they hope to learn more about.

Although I struggled to believe in the love Alma and Ichimei felt for each other (I couldn’t sense much passion between them and, for me, it just wasn’t the heartbreaking romance I thought it should have been, given the setting and subject), I did find it interesting to read about the injustices suffered by the Fukuda family, their time in the internment camp, and the racial, cultural and class barriers that stood in the way of Ichimei and Alma’s happiness. However, Allende does not just focus on this storyline; she also delves into Irina’s background and those of some of the other characters, touching on a huge number of issues such as child abuse, homosexuality, pornography, drug use and abortion. All things which are relevant to modern life, but the book was not really long enough to explore them in much depth.

I found plenty of things to like about this book, but there were times when I felt that I was reading a long string of facts and information rather than an engaging story – too much ‘telling instead of showing’ – and there’s also not much dialogue, which could explain why I found it difficult to connect with Alma and Ichimei. I was slightly disappointed, but it’s possible that I just chose the wrong Isabel Allende book to begin with. I know she has a lot of fans who love her writing, so I’m hoping that if I try another of her books I’ll understand why.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a nationality.

15 thoughts on “The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

  1. Silvia says:

    I have not read any yet, but maybe her older books are better.
    I have her The City of the Beasts, but now I feel I need to look into which would be her best titles. (I don’t like books like what you described here.)

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I might try one of her older books next time. The City of the Beasts sounds very different from this one, though, so maybe you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I have read all of Allende’s novels and I think she is an author who should be read in order of publication because she has her own arc as an author. So I would recommend trying an earlier book. For historical fiction of older times I would recommend Ines of My Soul or The Island Beneath the Sea, set in the colonial times in South America. Those two books show her amazing, resourceful and strong heroines.

    • Helen says:

      I obviously made the wrong choice in starting with this one. I like the sound of the two you mentioned – especially Ines of My Soul – so maybe I will try one of those. Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. Carmen says:

    I thought the Nobel Panel lost a remarkable opportunity to award her the prize for House of Spirits. It is remarkable, despite the magical realism that you dislike. I didn’t remember the magical realism being so notable, unlike in A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Like Water to Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, for example. I think you would appreciate the strength of the characters and the historical and political context above all else, because after all, that’s what it is mostly about.

    I also read City of the Beasts–I liked it less than the former, but it is my second favorite; it is about the adventures of two children in the Amazonian jungle. It can be described as YA, and it is a trilogy or a quartet of novels with the same characters: Eagle and Jaguar–, and Eva Luna, which I wasn’t crazy about. Judy liked it more than I did. You can try the first two, or ask Judy for a more accessible one. City of the Beasts was fun but a little preachy about environmental exploitation and the conquering/domination of one race over another.

    I made a list of titles to read this year and the Spanish version of The Japanese Lover was in it. I had to scratch out that list because I requested ten titles from Netflix this year and I’m reading about a book a month, thus it seems that I will be spending the entire year (hopefully) reading the new titles I requested, plus some old ones that I never got to read and review.

    Enough with my babbling! 🙂 Hope that helps!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that does help. Thank you! This was probably the wrong book for me to start with – I should have tried one of her earlier books instead of this one. I think I would still like to read The House of Spirits (I don’t mind magical realism all that much, really, especially as you’ve said it’s not too notable). I’m not sure about City of the Beasts, although it does sound interesting.

  4. Novels And Nonfiction says:

    I’m listening to this in audiobook right now and agree with you that it’s hard to feel a connection to it because the relationships between the characters and the characters themselves feel a bit shallow. I read In The Midst Of Winter earlier this year and it felt more emotional and warmer, though Allende’s writing so far to me does seem on the ‘lighter’ side – lots of jokes and innuendo but not a ton of depth, even when she describes tough circumstances like those in the interment camp in The Japanese Lover. I haven’t read The House Of The Spirits yet but that’s next.

  5. cirtnecce says:

    The only Allende book I have read is The House of Spirits and absolutely loved it. However I have not gone back and read any of her other works though she has written plenty of other books, many of which are considered very good. This one though despite the setting does not seem to be a very good introduction to Ms, Allende’s work and the multiplicity of themes and issues, makes it sound like she is trying a bit too hard. Maybe I will try some of her other books before coming back to this one!

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think this was a good introduction to Allende at all and yes, I think she was trying to cover too many different topics and issues all in one book. I would like to try The House of the Spirits as it’s her best known book and so many people seem to have loved it.

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