Friday, January 15, 2016

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

As usual, I loved Allende's work.  Set in the United States, this book contains less magical realism than her South American set works, though some does make its way in toward the end of the book.  The best part of this novel were the wonderful, strong female characters.

Irina Bazili is a young care worker who takes a job in Lark House, an eccentric San Francisco nursing home.  There she meets Alma, an 80ish woman from a wealthy society family who has checked herself into the home despite the reservations of her family.  Most of the residents are aging hippies with little or no money of their own.  Alma hires Irina as her personal secretary and Irina sets out to learn about Alma's fascinating past.  She is particularly curious about weekly letters and gardenias that she receives.

Alma's grandson, Seth, takes an interest in Irina and together they piece together Alma's decades long hidden love affair with a Japanese gardener, Ichimei.  Alma and Ichimei were childhood friends when his father worked as her family's private gardener.  This was disrupted by the abrupt internment of all Japanese residents during World War II.  Through flashbacks we follow Ichimei's time in the internment camp as well as learn how Alma's parents were killed in the Holocaust after they had sent her abroad to live with her aunt and uncle.

We also learn about Alma's deep friendship and ultimate marriage to her cousin Nathaniel.  While I had guessed some of Nathaniel's secrets, others were surprising as they were revealed over time.  And we learn about Irina's own very horrific past as she slowly opens herself up to Seth's love.

There were several other interesting characters at Lark House.  I particularly liked Dr. Cathy, a relatively young resident who is in the home following a debilitating accident, but continues to practice medicine on the residents, and the flamboyant Lenny whose past interactions with Alma are eventually revealed and most interesting.  I was less enamoured with Alma's brother Samuel and found the couple of chapters about him a bit distracting.

This is not a book of tremendous action, but the examination of people, their pasts and their  relationships makes the book a very worthwhile read.

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