Like so many things Henry had wanted in life—like his father, his marriage, his life—it had arrived a little damaged. Imperfect. But he didn’t care, this was all he’d wanted. Something to hope for, and he’d found it. It didn’t matter what condition it was in.
I joined a book club! Did I mention I joined a book club? Anyway, yes, I joined a book club and their selection for March (March! Can you tell I’m a little behind on reviews?) was Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, the story of a Chinese boy and his Japanese best (girl) friend during WWII.
What I Liked
– The characters are so great. Henry, Keiko, Sheldon, Mrs. Beatty, Henry’s dad, Henry’s mom, Ethel. SO GREAT.
– Do I have to pick a favorite character? I can’t. Mrs. Beatty owns my heart, though.
– I loved the relationship between Henry and his father. It was heartbreaking, yes, but I understood both of their positions, and the tension was so palpable and real. I also loved that Ford doesn’t really condemn either. I mean, okay, we’re on Henry’s side, but I get why the father is the way he is. And as much as I want him to let go of his old prejudices and outlook, I see why he can’t or is unwilling to.
– Henry’s mom, oh man. The way she has to play the mediator and obey her husband while not turning her back on her son. Oy.
– “I AM CHINESE.”
– Since this is a story about first love, I have to admit that Keiko and Henry’s relationship is SO ADORABLE. At first, Henry read a little young to me, but then I remembered that he’s 12/13 during much of his developing relationship with Keiko, so, of course he’s young. Duh. Everything between them is so great. The adventures they go on, the experiences they share. Keiko’s frustration with Henry’s unwillingness to rock the boat, Henry’s confusion and embarrassment when she doesn’t seem to understand his position. AH SO GREAT.
– Also, I really, really loved that Keiko wanted Henry to maintain his relationship with his father. Her basic position is “Yes, he’s ridiculous. Yes, he’s antiquated. BUT HE’S YOUR DAD.” It just really spoke to the differences the two of them had in their relationships with their parents. I found it quite authentic. (Henry’s response, of course, is “Yeah, but you don’t understand what he’s like because you don’t have to live with him.”)
– Awesome first kiss. And that’s all I’ll say about that because spoilers.
– I also quite liked the juxtaposition of the discovery of first love (Henry and Keiko) with the reality of forever love (Henry and Ethel).
– So what I’m saying is A+ relationships and characters.
What I Didn’t Like
– All of that said, this story is told mostly in flashbacks with present day (1986) Henry remembering his youth. While I’m fine with the flashbacks as a device, I found that the WWII bits were much more developed in terms of relationships than the 1986 bits. For example, Henry has a strained relationship with his son. I know because he keeps telling me. But I never get from their interactions that this relationship is so strained. It’s all tell and no show.
– Henry’s son is pretty bland overall. His fiancée is great, though.
– Keiko’s father was just a touch too perfect. (Although he does sound like he’s super fly, and I approve of that 100%. I can just see him rocking a fedora, creased pants, and a button-down.) I understand that most of what we learn about him is through Keiko’s point of view, but, seriously, this is an actual thing she says about her parents:
“And they’re Americans first. They don’t see you as the enemy. They see you as a person.”
And I was just like, “Oh, is that how Americans are?” Because I so was not buying that. I don’t think I would’ve minded so much if her parents were just that way–you know, seeing Henry as a person and not the enemy–but the idea that that’s the way Americans think in 1940-whatever was just a bit too much for me.
Keiko’s dad does seem like a pretty cool dude but this idealistic portrayal of Americans and American thinking made me roll my eyes.
– Perhaps because the story is told from Henry’s point of view, the Japanese internment camps are presented a little bit more positively than I would have liked. I wanted a bit more of just how much they sucked, but, again, Henry’s POV, so they mostly suck because he’s away from his friend.
Ford does present enough information so that the reader can see they suck in other ways (Keiko’s family lives in one room, they move to Idaho [!!!], the humiliation of walking through the streets of Seattle, her father can no longer practice law, etc.), but Henry is just like “Keiko’s so far awaaaay.” Which I get it, I do. I’m just noting.
– I’m not so sure Henry’s son would be part of an online grief support group in the mid-1980s. Or that he’d look up Keiko on the internet. Small, but distracting details.
In conclusion: A sweet and heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful story with awesome characters and complicated relationships.