The Japanese Lover: A Novel by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover: A Novel | Author: Isabel Allende | Rating: 4.5/11 |

Released: November 3, 2015

If we remember nothing else from our high school history classes, we know this: history repeats itself. And while the great and terrible wars, armistices and revolutions can never be laid at the feet of any single individual, mankind enacts these cyclical themes in microcosm throughout the course of each individual life. The trials, romances, defeats, and triumphs of a lone existence may create smaller ripples in time, but they find their echoes in each intervening year, too, spread throughout the lives of countless individuals. Authors have mined this tacit truth for generations, drawing parallels to prove points both large and small. Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, is no exception to this well-worn literary trend.

Allende’s multi-generational story follows the fate of San Francisco socialite Alma Belasco. A Polish Jew left orphaned by World War II, Alma emigrates to the United States to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle and their three children in California.  There, she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the youngest son of the Belasco family’s Japanese gardener. Alma and Ichimei forge a bond which lasts throughout their lifetimes, surviving the Fukuda’s internment at a concentration camp in Utah, Alma’s college years in Boston and both of their marriages (to other people). At the start of the novel, Alma has decided to renounce the bulk of her worldly possessions and live out the remainder of her years at Lark House, a nursing home for senior citizens. She befriends a bright young employee named Irina, who finds solace from the specters of her own troubled past by investigating the mystery of Alma’s.

While The Japanese Lover is undeniably a love story, it is more a tale about history’s repeating cycle of victims and of the strong men and women who refuse to let their victimization govern their lives. As such, it should be a fiercely uplifting and inspirational tale. However, in spite of its host of seemingly diverse personalities and its tragic wartime backdrop, Allende’s novel falls disappointingly short. The mystery at the heart of the tale is predictable and without allure. Her characters are stereotypical, lackluster and entirely too good to be true, which renders them uninteresting and difficult to relate to. The writing is well-paced and meticulously researched, but instead of gaining color and drama from its historical setting, the well-known events of the World War II era make the story feel repetitive and dull. Allende’s parallel heroines are purportedly strong, independent women, but both ultimately crumple into the arms of the men waiting in the background to catch them – a fate which might be more forgivable if the men themselves weren’t such blatant stereotypes. Ultimately, Allende’s latest novel does not do credit to her proven abilities as a storyteller.

What The Japanese Lover successfully demonstrates, however, is that the ‘human experience’ knows no borders and that the joys and travesties of history will continue to repeat themselves across the expanse of generations.  In the case of atrocities like the World War II confinements of Jewish and Japanese prisoners, this is a sobering and distressing truth. However, Allende also reveals that the brighter experiences of love and friendship will always find a way, time and time again, to take root among the weeds of history’s worst devastations.

Historical fiction fans looking for an undemanding beach read might do well to pick up a copy of this book.  Otherwise, readers new to Allende’s work are strongly encouraged to start elsewhere.