Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
2009, 290 pages

In 1942 Seattle, twelve-year-old Henry Lee is the only Chinese student at Ranier Elementary. Proud of his son's "scholarshipping," Henry's father forbids his son to speak anything other than english at home, despite the fact that neither of his parents understand him, yet at the same time forces Henry to wear a button that says "I am Chinese." Henry is lonely and picked on, until one day his world brightens when Keiko, a Japanese girl, starts at Ranier. Henry and Keiko become friends, despite Henry's father's aversion to all things Japanese. Henry and Keiko's friendship becomes more complicated when Keiko's family is "evacuated" along with the entire Japanese population of Seattle.

In 1986, Henry is still getting over the recent death of his wife, Ethel, when he hears that belongings of Japanese families that were evacuated during World War II have been found in the Panama Hotel. Henry quixotically searches these belongings for an old record that he and Keiko had shared, all the while trying to cross the rift that exists between him and his son, Marty. 
Henry stared in silence as a small parade of wooden packing crates and leathery suitcases were hauled upstairs, the crowd marveling at the once-precious items held within:  a white communion dress, tarnished silver candlesticks, a picnic basket--items that had collected dust, untouched, for forty-plus years. Saved for a happier time that never came.

The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten. (p6-7)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet alternates between telling the story an adolescent Henry's war years with his later life in 1986. What really amazed me about this book is how Ford manages to tell the story of the Japanese evacuation, of the struggles between generations in immigrant families, and of the friendship between Henry and Keiko, with each story ringing true to the reader. All of the elements in this novel - the Oscar Holden record Henry searches for; his meeting of Ethel, who he marries; even the bullies who pick on Henry mercilessly - all fit together seamlessly in a touching story.

Ford creates an unexpected cast of characters that works in the context of this novel. I loved Sheldon, the African American saxophone player who acts as a big brother to Henry, and Samantha, the Caucasian fiance of Henry's son, Marty, who impresses her future father-in-law with a mastery of Chinese cuisine. I read this book slowly, over the course of a week, but I savored every page and enjoyed Ford's writing, which brings these characters to life and is artful and beautiful. Take this example:
Henry squinted, allowing his senses to adjust to the daylight and the cold, gray Seattle sky that filled the paned windows of the Panama Hotel lobby. Everything, it seemed--the city, the sky--was brighter and more vivid than before. So modern, compared with the time capsule downstairs. As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days. (p76-77)
This book also tells an important story - that of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is one of the darker moments in American history, and it was heartbreaking to watch Keiko's family as they were "evacuated," despite the fact that her family was more "American" than Japanese, and that Keiko was born in the U.S. Keiko's frustration at seeing those of Japanese heritage taken away and her family's strength as they are forced to leave behind their entire life is touching.
Keiko halted and looked at Henry. She looked down at his button, the one his father had made him wear. "You are Chinese, aren't you, Henry?"
He nodded, not knowing how to answer.
"That's fine. Be who you are," she said, turning away, a look of disappointment in her eyes. "But I'm an American." (p60)
Another aspect of the novel that really rang true for me was its depiction of the relationship between first generation American Henry and his immigrant parents. Henry's father demands that he speak only english in their home, despite the fact that this essentially renders Henry unable to communicate with his parents. Henry is torn between two worlds - not American enough to fit in at Ranier Elementary, but not fitting into Chinese culture either. This experience is echoed to some degree by Keiko's experience, as well as Henry's struggle to be understood by his own son, Marty.

This book is definitely a worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to practically anyone. It is well-deserving of all the praise it's been getting and is a very memorable book.


  1. I have this book and I just haven't been able to pick it up. I must say that you have renewed my interest in reading it. I had pretty much accepted that I might never get to it. Great review.

  2. What a gorgeous review! I really want to read this book, especially after reading what you had to say. The character development in this novel sounds terrific.

  3. I liked this one too Dana; great review.

  4. Great review! I've been hearing a bit about this book lately, so I'm grateful for your opinion on it. I'll have to check it out.

  5. great review! I have read a lot of reviews of this one (almost all favorable) but have never heard mention of the immigrant experience and how it affects one character. I love immigrant fiction - one more reason to pick up this great book!

  6. Great review.

    I enjoy this book too.

  7. Isn't it amazing how much some authors can pack into a story and make it work? I really liked this one and have passed along both of my copies to new homes happily.

  8. Thanks for this grat review; this is a book I'd like to read.

  9. Thanks for reminding me about this book, Dana! I've meant to read it for some time. I think it would work well for a book club read, don't you? I may see if I can work it in with my group for the fall or next spring.

  10. Very nice review! I haven't heard of this book before but now I'm glad I did. The plot sounds so compelling, and the writing seems beautiful. I'll be looking out for this one!

    from Une Parole

  11. Beautiful review!! This is a must-read for me. I liked your analysis of this book.

  12. Oh this looks like SOOOOO me! I'm writing down the title, and headed to the library and book store now!!

  13. I'm glad to see you enjoyed this one as much as I did! I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric