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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet travels back in time to "The War Years," as Henry, the main character, calls them.  He was born and raised in Seattle; however, he is clearly Chinese, which makes him the recipient of endless taunting by his fellow students at the white prep school he attends on scholarship.  Though the Japanese are America's enemy in 1942, the other students only see "Asian" and Henry leads a life that is lonely but for the Jazz he discovers through a street saxophone player.

Though he, too, was raised by his traditional Chinese father to hate the Japanese, he soon forms a friendship with a new Japanese scholarship student, Keiko.  As outsiders in their school, they cling to each other for support.  Friendship turns into an innocent courtship and they vow to wait for each other, even after Keiko's family is moved to an internment camp.  It seems they could beat prejudice against all odds, but the book's shift to 1986 where Henry is mourning the death of his wife, Ethel, indicates they drifted apart.

Based on how much he hurts when his wife dies and his pride in their son, it is clear Henry went on to live a fulfilling life.  But even still, when he sees on tv that the Panama Hotel in old Japantown has been bought and hoards of belongings from evacuated Japanese families are discovered in the basement, he is drawn to the building to see if he can find what was lost to him 40 years ago.

Though there is a young romance in the works, this is less about love and more about hope.  Hope that friendship can survive impossible circumstances and hope that a young man can bridge the gap between his parents' old world culture and the new America they are raising him in.

4 out of 5 stars.

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