Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: Vintage Reviewer
by Tam Francis
As I was writing The Girl in the Jitterbug Dress (a story told in a parallel narrative with two points of view), my mother insisted I read this book. She thought it similar to my novel and thought I’d love it. It turns out she was right.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford ( 2009, Random House), is set in 1940’s and 1980’s Seattle, specifically in Japantown and Chinatown. When the boarded up Panama Hotel is renovated, belongings of Japanese families, which were left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II, are found in the basement. Our hero, Henry Lee, is flooded with buried memories as he spies a familiar vintage parasol.
We follow Henry down his personal rabbit hole as the narrative jumps between his present and past, and his experience growing up as a Chinese American at the height of WWII. He is awarded a “scholarship” to a prestigious “white” school where, amidst bullies and indifferent classmates, he meets the love of his life, Keiko. Only problem is: she’s Japanese. And this is a big problem. Henry’s father is Chinese obsessed to the point of making Henry wear a I AM CHINESE button to school everyday. He tells Henry, The Japanese are the enemy.
The only person Henry can talk to is a black street musician, Sheldon. They develop a unique friendship and when Keiko and her family are evacuated to an internment camp, it is Sheldon, Henry turns to.
In Henry’s present, he struggles with his wife’s death and his estranged relationship with his own son. He cannot seem to find the words to bridge the gap with his modern, progressive, Chinese American son.
What I liked about it
- The romantic, Nicholas Sparks, sentimentality. I’m a sucker for a good romance and this fit the bill, as a bittersweet, achingly beautiful romance with a touch of Romeo and Juliet.
- The duel narrative and jumping from past to present. Ford did this effortlessly.
- Multi-dimensional characters with wonderful flaws and depth that grow and change throughout the novel.
- The insight into the Chinese (and in small part Japanese) perspective of the war without being heavy-handed.
- The history lesson. Ford did a great job of imparting interesting information and facts in a readable story. I was fascinated with the division of Chinatown and Japantown and appreciated the glimpse into the Japanese internment camp.
- The inclusion of Seattle’s jazz scene. I could hear Sheldon play his music in my head, and I felt like Ford took me to the smoky jazz club with his characters.
- Somewhat happy ending. Yeah, sometimes I want the unreality of the happy ending and Ford does this without making it too sappy.
What I didn’t like about it
- It started off a little slow for me and the narrative continued on a meandering pace. If you like the flow of Merchant Ivory films, you might like this, it has the same tempo.
- I like to cry, laugh and anger when I read, but sometimes Ford was too obvious in his manipulation of the reader’s feelings, hitting me over the head with the emotion he wanted to evoke.
- There were a few anachronisms that brought me out of the story, like an online support group, some inaccurate dates, and other odd era incongruities. Historical fiction writers or their editors need to be fact checkers, unless stated that something was changed or fudged for a reason.
- I wanted more Sheldon and more Jazz.
- The school bullies where a little cliche.
My mom had me pegged. I really enjoyed Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I became invested in the characters. There was enough romance and I loved learning the new bits of history without getting mired in it. Plus, the book, although the pacing seemed slow, was a quick, easy read.
Vintage Enthusiast Rating:
• Fashion: ♥♥
• Music: ♥♥♥♥
• Dance: ♥
Have you read anything about WWII Interment camps? Did you like it better than this? Why or why not. How much romance do you like in your historical fiction? I want to hear from you.
Do you have a novel set in the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, or seems to fit a vintage genre, I would like to review it. Contact me today!