Isabel Allende is one of the best and most beloved literary authors of our time, and if you’ve never read her, The Japanese Lover would be a great place to start. In this lovely, lyrical book, Alma Belasco comes to the United States as a young child in 1939, bewildered and sad from having had to leave her family behind in Poland. Although she is received into the lap of luxury in the home of her wealthy aunt and uncle, she struggles to find her place in this new world, and only is able to find herself when grounded by the affection of Nathaniel, her cousin, and Ichimei, the gardener’s on at her family’s estate. These two men are to shape Alma’s life profoundly, and we watch her story unfold in bits and pieces, beautifully weaved together throughout the book. We also get to know Alma’s other family members – her uncle, son, and grandson – and Irina, Alma’s caretaker and friend in the later years of her life.
This book is a love story, but it’s also a meditation on the meaning of family. It’s about self-invention, and the people that we rely on to carry us through the hardest changes in our lives. It’s also a social commentary, as Allende includes vivid descriptions of life in Japanese internment camps during World War II and the strong prejudices that existed (and persist) in American society against interracial marriage and homosexuality. This might sound like it’s all over the map, but Allende does an amazing job pulling together these disparate threads into a story that flows effortlessly. She creates prickly, inscrutable characters that keep you wondering just what they’ll do next, and even provides a bit of a surprise ending to delight her readers even more.
This is an absorbing, beautifully written novel, filled with lessons about love, loyalty, and kindness.