“The Japanese Lover” by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. New York: Atria Books, 2015. (322 pages).

My attention is always captured in the first pages of an Isabel Allende novel and this one was no exception. The Japanese Lover, is an absorbing story about family, history, memory, connections and the search for love.  The characters are survivors of the Holocaust, Japanese-American internment camps, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Aids crisis. The main character, Alma Belasco, is a wealthy widow, who chooses to live out her days in Lark House. a seniors’ community in San Francisco, rather than with her family and who slowly reveals the secrets of her life.

As in other Isabel Allende fiction, there is a large cast of characters. Alma is the main one followed by Irina Bazili, a young Moldovan immigrant, who has repressed the horrors of her adolescence and is Alma’s caregiver with secrets of her own,  her grandson Seth and Ichimei.

Irina uncovers an emotional triangle that existed between Alma, her cousin Nathaniel and the Japanese gardener’s son, Ichimei; Alma comes to rely on both for companionship and understanding. While Allende concentrates on the inner lives of her characters, she also excels at portraying the historic context behind events that transform their lives.

The story moves between the past and the present, where we meet Alma’s Jewish family in pre-World War II Europe; the San Francisco branch of the family who give her refuge; the family of her Japanese lover, Ichimei Fukuda; as well as her caregivers. Every character has a back story and gets your attention.

Letters are a major motif in the book, and interestingly they have also played an enormous role in Allende’s life – not just those she exchanged with her mother, but also the one she began writing to her dying grandfather on 8 January 1981, which grew into her sprawling debut novel, The House of the Spirits. Allende has underscored the importance of diaries and letters in preserving memory. Scattered throughout the book are beautiful missives from Ichimei to Alma.

In each chapter Allende reveals mysteries and we learn why Alma marries Nathaniel instead of Ichimei and the part racial prejudice plays in that decision. The reader also learns why Irina is unable to trust any man. Some revelations are disturbing, though love ultimately helps each woman survive. Isabel Allende is an incredible storyteller and keeps you engrossed until the very end.

Luba Sawczyn is Branch Manager at the Graham Public Library.  She can be reached at lsawczyn@alamancelibraries.org or 336-570-6730.