Novelist Isabel Allende is no stranger to a love story. The bestselling author of The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows once translated English romance novels into Spanish, decades before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama last year.
‘The Japanese Lover’ crosses times and generations to tell its prescient story.
Her latest novel, The Japanese Lover, traces a secret affair that spans more than half a century, transcending war, borders, social class, different races and culture.
It begins in the late 1930s in San Francisco, when the city thrived with a large Japanese population. Young Alma Belasco has been sent away from Nazi-controlled Poland by her parents to live with her aunt and uncle in their Californian mansion, safe from the throes of war. There she meets a boy her age, Ichimei Fukuda, the youngest son of the estate’s gardener. They immediately become inseparable friends.
As the war escalates, however, the hate speech against Japanese people begins to spread, finally climaxing with the Pearl Harbor attack that instantly shifts the country’s mood.
The Fukuda family, as well as 120,000 other Japanese Americans, are forced to evacuate their homes, live in supervised internment camps where their bank accounts are frozen and their autonomy, culture and traditions are all stripped. Ichimei and Alma write to each other but are eventually separated. Even when they reunite years later, they’re forced to hide their love.
Allende draws caring characters that readers can’t help but cheer for. There’s the shy relationship between Irina, the young aide who looks after Alma at her nursing home in the present day, and Alma’s grandson, Seth, who has extra motivation to visit his grandmother when Irina is present.
But at the heart of The Japanese Lover are the two families from Alma’s past – the distinguished Fukudas, headed by the issei father, Takao, whose botany skills and respect for nature easily bonds him with Isaac, Alma’s uncle and the head of the Belascos. It’s a story of friendship, with no named antagonists. The main villain is something much bigger – the effects of war that’s left a society rooted in fear and racial prejudices, tearing apart Ichimei and Alma.
As Alma grows from eight to her eighties, her body slows but her mind remains active and passionate. The Japanese Lover leaves readers with a sense of hope, pathos, but mostly, a desire to live and love without regret.