Oh look, an Isabel Allende novel hanging out on the New Books shelf. You treat me so well, library. So, so well. And I tried to love it, but I really only ended up liking it, and even then that might be a stretch. The Japanese Lover is the kind of novel that someone else will definitely love, but that person isn’t me.
This is a parallel story of two women—Irini Bazili and Alma Belasco—and how the tragedies that happened to them at a young age shaped their lives, particularly their love lives. Irina meets Alma while working at a retirement home, and gradually the latter recounts her days growing up in the States after emigrating from Poland just before the Second World War breaks out. Meanwhile, Alma’s grandson Seth starts paying court to Irina, who for some reason seems reluctant to get involved with anyone. Yet Seth and Irina bond over their concern for Alma, who is starting to show her age, and who continues leaving Lark House intermittently on what they assume are trysts with Ichimei, Alma’s mysterious and ephemeral on-again/off-again/on-again/off-again/on-again lover over the decades.
If that sounds like a lot is going on, you would be forgiven for thinking so. Yet the novel proceeds at a leisurely, almost agonizingly slow pace, as if it has all the time in the world to unspool its story. At times it feels like it wants to be a mystery: who is Ichimei? And then it tells us, with plenty of exposition and backstory. At other times it seems to be a romance: will we ever see Alma and Ichimei together? Will Irina and Seth end up together? Yet other times imply that this is a meditation on growing old: Lark House is a microcosm for the various ways that elderly people confront aging. A book can, of course, be more than one thing. I really did enjoy some of Allende’s observations about aging, and in particular the attention she pays to how different people react.
I had a harder time appreciating the romantic or historical parts of the book. I’m supposed to care about Irina/Seth and Alma/Ichimei, but the characters feel so distant. Allende spends more of her time telling than showing, describing and narrating instead of giving us dialogue and action. It also doesn’t help that Seth is a whiny manbaby whose reaction to Irina’s trauma is “we will fix you,” as if she is some kind of broken human being and he is a God-given panacea, and who quite literally tells her to move in with him and he’ll pay her—when she retorts that he wants a “secretary with benefits” I had to give her a high-five. Seth is basically a waste of space.
Ichimei, on the other hand, seems kind of sweet. But Allende portrays him as surprisingly stereotypical. The Fukudas practise martial arts, have a ceremonial katana, etc. To her credit, she mentions a specific religion/sect (oomoto), but she doesn’t go into much detail about what makes it different—it might as well be any other “exotic” Eastern brand of spiritualism for all the readers of this book are going to care. The time that Ichimei spends in the internment camps is some of the most fascinating in the book—Allende captures the irony of the situation, of the US entering a war to fight an enemy putting Jews in concentration camps when it is doing something similar at home. But she does not flesh out these supporting characters as much as she could.
The Japanese Lover just doesn’t seem very impressed with itself, and that attitude rubbed off on me. It is a novel, but it’s a novel that goes through all the motions. Written by someone else it might be tolerable, but from someone as celebrated as Allende it feels like going to a Michelin-star restaurant only for the chef to serve you up the most “tolerable” piece of toast you’ve ever seen: yes, it is tasty, but that’s not really what you were hoping for given the reputation. This book is by no means a waste of time. As I said at the top, I can see why others might love it, whether it’s for the forbidden love angle or the juxtaposition of Alma’s youth with her more elderly days. But these elements felt so disparate for me, and they never quite came together into a fulfilling read.