Spanning decades, continents and generations of several families, Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover is ambitious in its breadth. What’s much simpler is categorising the novel: this is a good old fashioned love story, make no mistake. Despite the story’s breadth, unfortunately for Allende, The Japanese Lover never reaches the depths of the soul quite in the way you’d hope such an ambitious love story might.
The novel centres mainly around one woman, Alma Belasco. Sent away from Poland to the west coast of the United States by her Jewish parents during the Second World War, Alma is cast into an unfamiliar world when she is only eight years old. She stays with family that she barely knows and struggles to settle. That all changes when Alma forms a firm friendship with the son of the wealthy Belasco’s Japanese gardener, Ichimei.
Life proves to be cruel to these two young kindred spirits, as the war intrudes again upon their young lives. This time it is Ichimei and his family who are sent away from San Francisco to be interned at a concentration camp for the duration of the war. For years, Alma and ‘Ichi’ have no choice but to continue their friendship through heavily censored letters, and after a brief interlude in early adulthood where the two indulge in a relationship they both know is forbidden, they hardly see each other again.
Fast-forward half a century and Alma’s grandson Seth, along with her carer Irina, suspect that Alma has a secret lover with whom she goes on trysts to the coast. The novel is clever in that beyond his childhood years spent with Alma, Ichimei is largely shielded from the reader’s gaze. Allende guides us through the eyes of Seth and Irina, as they gently try to piece together what happened to Alma and her young love in the past. If anything, the pace is a little too sedate and tends to drag, creating frustration at not being allowed to observe Ichimei, rather than intrigue – much like the romance that bubbles under the surface of Irina and Seth’s acquaintance.
In not wanting to give anything away to the reader, Allende keeps too much hidden for too long, while indulging other insignificant details that lead to dead ends. There’s also a tendency to simply relay event after event – which Allende does weave together masterfully – without giving much depth to the characters. Allende’s descriptions of what motivates them, what they fear or hope for, are rather shallow. As a result, the reader isn’t allowed the privilege of knowing the inner workings of their souls, which ultimately makes it quite difficult to care much what happens to them.
The final chapter, which describes emotional scenes as Alma moves towards the end of her life, is touching, albeit in the manner of a clichéd, Hollywoodesque ‘resolution’ to the problems posed by the conspicuously absent ‘Japanese lover’. Similarly, the revelation of what happened to Irina in her earlier life, and why she is initially so resistant to become involved with Seth, feels very much like a device to throw the two together, in another flourish to tie up loose ends.
The Japanese Lover isn’t likely to cause any great offence, although it is unlikely to be remembered either. A pleasant enough read for a beach holiday and nothing more.
The Japanese Lover was published by Scribner UK on 2 June 2016