Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, published in 2009, is a New York Times bestseller, the debut novel of Jamie Ford. It's the story of Henry Lee, the protagonist, a 12-year-old Chinese American boy, who meets a pretty, 12-year-old Japanese American girl, Keiko Okabe, at Rainier Elementary School in Seattle. They're the only Asians at school, and are taunted by the other kids. Henry and Keiko work together in the school cafeteria at lunchtime, share canned fruit, and develop a special friendship, which turns into young love. (I've heard this criticized by other reviewers, saying they are too young, but I have friends from my own childhood who had first-loves at the young age of 12 or 13, so I know it's entirely possible.) From the start, though, there is a problem with their relationship.
"His father hated the Japanese. Not because they they sank the USS Arizona--he hated them because they'd been bombing Chongqing, nonstop, for the last four years. Henry's father had never even been there, but he knew that the provisional capital of Chiang Kai-shek had already become the most-bombed city in history."
~Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford
Henry's father, a Chinese nationalist, forbids his son to see Keiko, but Henry follows his own heart, which leads him to Nihonmachi, or Japantown, Keiko's home. The novel begins in 1986, outside of the Panama Hotel, with the discovery of the belongings of thirty-seven Japanese American families who were banished to internment camps during World War II. The Panama Hotel divides Seattle's Chinatown from Japantown, and is also significant as a meeting place in the story. This discovery at the hotel, and a painted parasol in particular, brings back Henry's memories of Keiko, who was evacuated with her family to the internment camps more than forty years earlier. Henry, now a widower (his wife, Ethel, has recently died of cancer), is in the midst of trying to mend his relationship with his son, Marty, and he also thinks about his past and Keiko. The book is told in the split-narrative, and is easy to follow because each chapter is dated as 1986 or 1942 (or 1945).
I don't want to say too much about the plot of this tender tale, because I hope you'll read it for yourself. Words cannot adequately express how I experienced this novel, how this book touched me, or how this story will remain with me. But I will say that I enjoyed it greatly, and learned about the Japanese internment during World War II, the racial tensions of the 1940's, as well as Oscar Holden and Seattle's flourishing jazz scene. Jamie Ford is quite a talented writer, and this book does live up to its cover.
Exciting news! The publisher is offering one copy of the book (the trade paperback version) as a giveaway (US/Canada only).
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Special thanks to Lisa from TLC and Random House for sending me this book. For more reviews of this book, visit the other stops on the Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet book tour. Please stop by again on February 10 for an exclusive interview with the author, Jamie Ford.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet counts toward Jennie's China Challenge.