Friday, February 13, 2009
Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
The present time is 1986 in Seattle when we are first introduced to Henry Lee, a recently widowed Chinese American. While he witnesses a press conference at the old Panama Hotel, the simple sight of a koi umbrella discovered in the basement by the new hotel owner, takes him back mentally and emotionally more than 40 years to the 1940’s. Told from his perspective as a man in his mid fifties and flashing back to when he was a boy of twelve, not only is this a coming of age story but it is also a story of the pangs and heartbreak of first love and the enduring essence of friendship. Easily combining a young love story with a war story, Ford weaves a magical tale.
Young Henry Lee was caught between two worlds, his American side and his Chinese side. At home from the age of 12 he was told to only "speak your American" and not the Cantonese that his parents spoke. His father, a proud Chinese Nationalist, wanted his son to become Americanized so he sent him to an all white prep school. Unfortunately, Henry found himself ostracized and taunted due to his Chinese heritage. It didn’t help that his father made him wear an “I am Chinese” button, thinking it would protect his son from the burgeoning anti Japanese feeling after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When a young Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe, began work in the school cafeteria with Henry, he found acceptance for who he was and it is this friendship that was at the heart of the story and what a wonderfully bittersweet story it became.
Right after President Roosevelt signed the executive order for all Japanese to be rounded up and placed in internment camps, a lot of families hurriedly placed belongings in the basement of the old hotel for storage. Keiko and her family were forced to leave their home taking only what they could carry. Henry was heartbroken as he and Keiko had become very attached to each other despite the anti Japanese sentiments belonging to Henry’s father and many others in the community of Chinatown.
Ford moves the story along seamlessly between the years bringing in the age old theme of father-son conflict. Henry and his father had a hard time communicating as has Henry and his son Marty. Another element of the story is Henry’s lifelong compassionate and caring friendship with Sheldon, a member of the Seattle jazz scene. The search for a treasured memory from the jazz era is a key component to help Henry open up communications with his son Marty.
Ford does an admirable job with his heartbreaking look at racial and cultural discrimination in a time of war, while conversely incorporating characters with giving hearts and compassionate natures. Ford writes with a simple clarity and his wonderful descriptions puts readers right into the location. It’s so easy to get into the heads of all the characters, I could feel the fear and sense of helplessness from them and almost hear Henry’s heart beat as he says goodbye to Keiko at the camp. So emotionally charged, it will pull at your heartstrings from beginning to end. I’m sure this short review does not do this book justice, but suffice it to say, I loved almost every character and the book as a whole.The characters I didn't like was solely because they were simply unlikeable in nature. Jamie Ford is a very talented author of whom I am sure we have not heard the last. If you only read one debut novel this year, it should definitely be this one.
A sincere thank you to Mr. Ford and his publicists Diana Franco and Lisa Barnes from Random house for an advance copy of this absolutely delightful book.
Author info here
For another opinon see Caite's review
also check out