I suppose the question must be asked if passion really exists. Not a flame which burns long enough to last through a one night stand, nor a longing which disappears after six months, but a love which transcends time and distance and continues even after death.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende Is a novel fraught with angst as two parallel love stories unfold, each full of obstacles with must be overcome in order to find fulfillment. Our tale begins at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay Area where octogenarian Alma Belasco resides. A rich eccentric with a secret past, she has eschewed all her former lavish existence and lives relatively humbly in a small cottage at the home continuing her silk screening avocation, now a hobby. Yet a mystery surrounds her puzzling disappearance for days at a time. Where does she go and who sends her the weekly orchid and the perplexing double enveloped letters?
Then there is Irina Basili who is barely able to eek out an existence assisting at the home and washing dogs in the evening so as to afford the rent at the overcrowded boarding house where she resides. She, too, has a secret past which she holds close. Alma hires Irina to help out and, as a bonus, Alma’s grandson Seth visits more often, not only to see his beloved grandmother, but also to spend time with the woman who has captured his heart. The smitten young lawyer takes it upon himself to write Alma’s memoir with the help of Irina who assists him in deciphering clues into the secrets of his grandmother’s past. Alma watches over the two, approving of Seth’s love choice and encouraging them both to find happiness together. Additional characters are added into the plot as slowly the secrets are revealed giving the reader an understanding of the motivation behind each character’s actions.
From the annihilating destructive results of the holocaust to the dehumanizing confinement at the Japanese Internment camps to all the devastatingly forbidden secrets, Allende explores the various stages and types of love found amidst the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. Going back and forth from the present to past events, with interspersed letters from Alma’s Japanese Lover, Ichimei Fukuda (the gardener’s son from childhood days), giving further clues as to the author’s intent, the reader unravels the events which have affected the fate of both Alma and Irina. It is hard not to feel empathy towards the two as tragedy affects the trajectory of their lives. While we always hope for happy endings, there is a bitter sweet flavor as the story concludes with a touch of magical realism, yet we wouldn’t have it any other way. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.