If you’re worried about plot spoilers, don’t read on. Personally, plot points don’t make or break a story. Not knowing how a story ends is not the point for me. It’s how it got there that matters.
I’ve now finished reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover. The love story of Alma Mendel, later Belasco, a Polish war refugee, and Ichimei Fukuda, the Nisei boy whose family gets sent to internment camp. It’s a sprawling story held together by the experience of a Moldovan refugee, Irina Bazili, who encounters Alma in a retirement community and forges a friendship with her grandson, Seth.
Betrayal, lust, love, childhood, longing—the storylines are all there, intertwining gracefully. Yet the characters feel thin, their motivations authorially manipulated. I went from delight to disappointment. Perhaps, I thought, it’s the translation that’s clunky—e.g., the sprinkling of dialogue attribution tags seems overdone, but does this convention sound fine in the original Spanish? I’ll never know.
Some of the stereotyping really surprised me—Ichimei is “serene,” “noble,” “spiritual.” That is surely a function of the text and not the translation. The gay husband Nathaniel dies, predictably, of AIDS. No, really? Why is it that when you take reality and plunk it down into fiction it seems contrived?
And yet…and yet….In spite of all this, I found myself returning to the book for its great leaps of story and its small intimacies. It contains some of the Allende magic, in its fairytale setup, its delicate narrative and its minute, subtle promises. It’s just that most of them somehow never get realized.
There was a time when I had to decide if I liked a book or not. Like? Dislike? There was no in between. Not true any more. This one falls in the half-light. It’s memorable. Imperfect. I’m glad I read it.