Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The trade paperback edition of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, hit bookstores on October 5, 2009, and within a week had climbed to number 15 on the New York Times bestseller list. By October 23 it had peaked at number 13. Since then it has remained in the top 30, ranging up and down from the mid teens to the high 20s (as I write this on the first day of summer 2010, it is #27).
An unusual achievement for a first novel, but Hotel is an unusual novel. It is about the relationship between Henry Lee, who is Chinese, and Keiko Okabe, who is Japanese. The story begins in 1986 when Seattle’s Panama Hotel is preparing to re-open after having been closed for more than forty years. The personal belongings of many Japanese families are found in the basement–apparently stashed there when the families are relocated to internment camps during WWII. Henry gets permission to go through the treasures, searching for anything that might have belonged to the Okabe family, but in particular for a recording by a local jazz artist that he and Keiko had shared when they were 12 years old. Although Henry married (his wife has recently died) and had a son, the memory of his first love has always haunted him because they were separated when she and her family were sent to a camp. To complicate matters, Henry’s father despises the Japanese because they are the enemies of China. He makes Henry wear an “I am Chinese” button so that he won’t be mistaken for the enemy.
This is a love story, but it is also about subtle forms of racism. Henry is not accepted by other Chinese kids because he attends a Caucasian school. Keiko is sent to an internment camp although she is third generation American and doesn’t even speak Japanese. The story shifts deftly between 1986 and the 1940s. Ford’s research and writing style make the war years and his characters come alive. Especially poignant is Ford’s depiction of the death of a community after its residents are rounded up and shipped out. An excellent novel. I highly recommend it.
Ford himself is of Chinese descent. His great grandfather, Min Chung, who immigrated to the U.S. around 1865, changed his name to the more western-sounding William Ford. Jamie Ford’s second novel is scheduled for release in early 2011. For more information, visit Jamie’s Website.