Friday, December 4, 2015


Isabel Allende
Atria Books

Ms. Hen debated for a long time over whether or not she should go to Isabel Allende’s reading in Cambridge in November. She wanted to go, but everyone attending had to buy the new hardcover book. Ms. Hen had never been to a reading where all members of the audience were required to purchase the book. She thinks it’s a great marketing strategy, but it would only work for well-established writers.

She did not regret going to the reading. Ms. Allende was smart and funny and inspiring. She told the story of how she got the idea for her new novel: Ms. Allende's friend told her that her mother had a Japanese male friend for forty years. Ms. Allende asked if they had been lovers, and the woman said, “No, of course not, how could you say that, she’s my mother!” But the seed of the novel was planted and it grew out of this conversation. Ms. Allende told the audience that she gets lots of letters from people all around the world telling her their stories, who want her to put them into a novel, but she said she cannot write something unless she feels connected to it, like she was to this story, because it was about love.

THE JAPANESE LOVER is about Alma, an octogenarian who has decided to spend her last days in a discount nursing home full of leftist radicals in San Francisco. The novel starts with Irina, a young woman from Moldova who begins working at the nursing home. Irina becomes Alma’s assistant, and with her grandson, Seth, they both try to unravel the mystery of Alma’s life.

They know Alma has a lover, but they don’t know who it is or why she keeps it a secret. This novel is full of secrets, and they are revealed little by little: Alma’s childhood when she was sent from Poland to escape the Nazis, her friendship with Ichimei from the time they were young, her cousinly love for Nathan who became her husband. Irina has secrets and so does Nathan, but they are revealed just at the perfect time.

Ichimei was sent to an internment camp at the onset of World War II. He told her Alma he would write to her, and he did, but his letters were so censored that she couldn’t read them. Instead of writing, he drew pictures and they were not censored.

Alma loved Ichi from the start, but they didn’t become lovers until they were in their twenties. They couldn’t be together because they were different races, and interracial marriage was prohibited in the 1950s. Alma didn’t want to marry Ichi because she thought he had no ambition, and she didn’t want to be the wife of someone who worked in a nursery.

Ms. Hen was happy that there was a place chickens were mentioned in this novel. When Irina was in Moldova she would “pray for the potato harvest and the health of the chickens.” Ms. Hen was glad that Irina prayed for the chickens. Irina had a difficult life, and Ms. Hen hopes her prayers were answered.

At the end of her life, Alma did not regret her decision not to marry Ichi. She was happy she had had the life she lived. Ichi is a mysterious character and he never meets Irina and Seth, even though they wanted to meet him.

This novel is about living with the choices one makes, and about love and loss. Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel because she couldn’t wait to discover what happened with Alma and Ichi. Ms. Hen did not carry her autographed first edition wherever she went, because she didn’t want the book to get ruined. She gives this novel five feathers up.

Isabel Allende, Cambridge, November 2015

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