Book Review: The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria, 2015)

I’ve long been told that I should read Isabel Allende so I happily picked up this second hand copy at Powell’s Books when in Portland. The Japanese Lover wasn’t exactly what I expected but Allende didn’t disappoint. Her writing is effective, dense, and infinitely enjoyable.

Allende packs a lot into this book. The story encompasses a lot of 20th century history in the USA but does it without leaving the reader overwhelmed. She wisely assumes that her reader will have a basic knowledge of this history and so moves forward with the story.

We open with an unusual senior’s home in San Francisco, present day, where a young woman with a mysterious past has just been hired. Irina is originally from Moldova, raised in poverty by her grandparents; we know she’s running away from something but she seems happy for the first time at Lark House. There she begins an unusual friendship with Alma, an older, mostly independent and wealthy woman who has her own secrets in her past. Including the letters she regular receives from an unknown correspondent.

Allende slowly unfolds Alma’s history, from her privileged upbringing in Poland, interrupted by the growing threat of World War Two when a young Alma is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in San Francisco. There she develops two close friendships – her cousin, Nathaniel, and the gardener’s son, Ichimei. Before the war is over, however, Ichimei and his family are deported with the rest of the Japanese residents of the West Coast and spend the rest of the war in a prison camp.

Canada shares this shameful history with the US; thousands of Japanese, many of them citizens, were unfairly imprisoned and stripped of their homes, land, and jobs. While it’s something that’s slowly becoming more talked about, it’s still a part of our history that is often ignored or unknown. I have yet to read much fiction dealing with it, either American or Canadian. I don’t know enough about the historical facts of the prison camps in the USA to speak to Allende’s accuracy but I thought she did an excellent job of portraying how different members of Ichimei’s family dealt with what happened to them. His mother, father, older brothers, and older sister all have vastly different reactions and each of them feels authentic and honest. Allende also touches on some of the far-reaching effects that the imprisonment has on their family and others.

(In fact, the major historical inaccuracy that I noticed was that everyone in Alma’s family was so completely non-racist. While definitely making for a more uplifting story, it felt a little unrealistic that they were all so open-minded.)

Alma’s life story is balanced out by the present day storyline. The growing friendship between Alma and Irina is charming and interesting to read about. I was less interested in Irina’s relationship with Alma’s grandson, Seth, but it does do a decent job of showing the disparity of wealth and class divisions in present day America.

All in all, The Japanese Lover was a good introduction to Allende’s work and I will definitely look for more from her in the future.

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Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co, 2017)

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.