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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

March 15, 2012

I read Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet because it’s up for discussion by the Imaginary Friends Book Club; it’s not the kind of thing I’d have picked up on my own, mostly because I’ve already read plenty of non-fiction and short stories about the internment of Japanese Americans and west coast novels about falling in love with a Japanese girl, like Snow Falling on Cedars.

This one was pleasant enough. Henry, a first-generation Chinese boy, falls in love with Keiko, a first-generation Japanese girl; they lose touch as adults and marry other people, and then they meet again, late in life.

My favorite character is the school cafeteria lady who isn’t overtly nice, but ends up being a good woman (without fitting Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit’s definition of a good woman, one who had someone there to shoot her every minute of her life). This woman, Mrs. Beatty, has more empathy than you might think, from the moment you meet her:

“A gassy, hairnet-wearing definition of one of Henry’s favorite American words: broad. She cooked by hand, literally, measuring everything in her dirty, wrinkled mitts. Her thick forearms were evidence that she’d never used an electric mixer. But, like a kenneled dog that refuses to do its business in the same place it sleeps, she never ate her own handiwork. Instead, she always brought her lunch. As soon as Henry laced up his apron, she’d doff her hairnet and vanish with her lunch pail and a pack of Lucky Strikes.”

Keiko’s father is a stock heroic figure sent to an internment camp: “Mr. Okabe’s Cary Grant hat looked regal even as he crossed the street carrying his only remaining belongings. Henry recognized his dignified posture, but his charming demeanor had been replaced with a detached stare.”

Because much of the narrative is told from 12-year-old Henry’s point of view, an old but effective way to juxtapose his innocence against the treatment of his African-American jazz-playing friend Sheldon and all the Japanese-Americans, the writing occasionally descends into a place from which it cannot ascend again:

“Leaning in, he felt the warmth of her cheek in the cool autumn air. Their foreheads touched as he looked down into her eyes, rolling clouds moving slowly in the reflections. His head turned to the left as hers did the same, and a simple kiss found a home between their lips.”

The final irony, for me, in a novel about prejudice, is that on the same page where an older Henry reflects on the progress his country has made since he was young (“Henry thought about his Chinese son, engaged to his Caucasian girlfriend, driving around in a Japanese car”) some college students he meets in his son’s dorm are identified as “coeds.” As in “girls who are also allowed to go to college.” Sigh.

It’s not a bad novel, but saying that does make me think of a line from a movie called The Big Easy, when a defendant’s mother tells the DA that the character she’s falling in love with isn’t bad and she responds “he could be a hell of a lot better!”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2012 10:15 am

    I left a comment, it disappeared. No idea what I said but none of the cliches bothered me. It had a predictable plot that ended in an unsurprising way but I wanted it that way, I suppose. I found it a bit stretching it that Sheldon would help Henry to the extent he did but I didn’t worry overmuch. I just enjoyed the ride.

    • March 16, 2012 10:20 am

      This is one of the (few, I hope) ways I can be like a snotty English teacher. Cliches bother me.

  2. March 16, 2012 12:09 pm

    I’ve always been drawn to the cover of this book but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

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