Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I really enjoyed reading this book.  I've been struggling to come up with this post, and I'm not sure why.  I'm guessing a lot of you have read this, it seems to be going around.

First of all, this title is perfect.  It is the story of a 12-year-old Chinese American boy growing up in the International District of Seattle during World War II.  His father is a Chinese Nationalist, and has fierce allegiances, which in turn translate to fierce hatred of Japanese people.  Henry is on a scholarship at a white prep school, where he is taunted and tormented.  When a Japanese American girl (second-generation) starts working in the cafeteria on scholarship also, the two become close friends.  Their story leads us into Japanese Interment, and really captures the bitter sweetness of their friendship.

That's half the story.  The other half is Henry as a recent widower, in 1986.  He has a son of his own who is attending college.  The Panama Hotel where Keiko's family stored some of their belongs has been recently purchased, and a basement full of Japanese families' belongs have been discovered.  In these chapters Henry struggles to reconcile his old feelings of love and heartache.

I didn't mind the switching chapters at all.  There were some elements that reminded me of Amy Tan's books, just the difficulty of raising children in a different culture than you live in.  Henry's father goes from forbidding him to speak English, to suddenly forbidding him to speak Chinese.  In the course of the book, their conversations go from strained to non-existent.  In the 1986 chapters, you see how some of those communication problems have repeated themselves with Henry and Marty.

What I loved about this book is that love triumphs.  Really sad things happen, a lot.  But the characters keep trying.  Also it has a good ending.  I liked Jamie Ford's writing style, and I'm curious to see where he goes from here.  I enjoyed the historical significance of what he captured.  But for some reason, I had a little disconnect.  I liked Henry and Keiko, and Sheldon and Marty, but I didn't fall in love with them.  I read this pretty quick, but I wasn't anxiously sneaking in pages throughout my day. 
Here are some good examples of Ford's talent for writing, that also show the tone of the book:
"As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon.  It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days."

"He envisioned staying at his uncle's house....and being teased by the locals for not being Chinese enough.  The opposite of here, where he wasn't American enough.  He didn't know which was worse."

"Inside had been a piece of hard candy and a quarter...The candy was so that everyone leaving would taste sweetness--not bitter.  The quarter was for buying more candy on the way home--a traditional token of lasting life and enduring happiness."  Henry is explaining the envelopes that were passed out at his wife's memorial service.

So I recommend it.  I think it's a great book, and one of the best I've read lately.  But it didn't have the impact on me that my favorite books have.


The GruCru said...

I haven't read it, but I love the title. Candy at a funeral=poetry

Sharlene, Mom, Grammy said...

Love this review. Your Mom has already told me I have to read this book. So it's on my list. I got three other books for Christmas. When or when will I work it in?! Sounds like I might need to bump one of the others. :)

Amy said...

I read this a few months ago for another book club. I agree that I didn't really connect with the characters as much as I thought I would. My favorite part of the entire book, though, was at the end with Sheldon. I thought the relationship built between them over all the years and the emotion in that final time between them was amazing. I cried. I almost would have prefered the story be about the friendship between them because that part of the story was told in such a lovely way.

Kammy T said...

Amy--You're right, I loved Sheldon and Henry's relationship. He was always there for Henry, and I loved the compassion and comfort his family wasn't providing!

kim said...

great review kam, can't wait to read this one! don't know why, but i've always been so fascinated with the people who were sent to the internment camps.

Sharlene, Mom, Grammy said...

Guess what? The three books I got for Christmas just got bumped by *Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.* Last year, we started a mother-daughter book club. We just do this once a year. We all read the book, and last year we went to Pigeon Forge and stayed in a nice condo, went to dinner, and reviewed our book. Well, we've all decided on your book for this year. So I guess I'll be reading it next instead of later. :)You inspired us.

Kammy T said...

Aunt Sharlene, we're keeping it in the family. Wendy gave a copy to my mom as a gift, which she loaned to me. I hope you guys have another fun girls book weekend!