In Isabel Allende’s new novel “The Japanese Lover,” two women, one in her eighties, one a young caregiver, find common ground in a retirement community and eventually reveal buried secrets. Allende appears Saturday Nov. 7 at Seattle’s First Baptist Church.
With the “The Japanese Lover”(Atria, 322 pp., $28), Isabel Allende returns to familiar territory after her unfortunate crime-fiction detour (2014’s “Ripper”).
The new novel is reminiscent of Allende’s Gold-Rush era “Daughter of Fortune” (1999), with its geographic sweep and multicultural love story.
“Lover” follows the intertwined fates of the Belasco and Fukuda families from World War II to the present. At the center of the novel is headstrong matriarch Alma Belasco. She is introduced at the age of 81, having shocked her family by ditching their chauffeur for a lime-green Smart car and moving out of their mansion in the San Francisco enclave of Sea Cliff, with its views of the Golden Gate Bridge, to take up residence in a progressive retirement community. Lark House is inhabited by ex-hippies who, in place of playing bingo, attend street protests and knitted cardigans for Syrian refugees.
The author will discuss “The Japanese Lover” in conversation with journalist Florangela Davila at 7 p.m. Saturday Nov. 7, at Seattle’s First Bapist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave., Seattle. Ticket information: $35 admits one person to the talk and includes a copy of the book, or $40 admits two people and includes one copy of the book. Available at the Elliott Bay Book Co. (elliottbaybook.com), at StrangerTickets.com and at the door.
Renowned silk-screen artist Alma, cutting an arresting figure with her short white hair, elegantly minimalist wardrobe and bright red lipstick, is not much of a joiner. She is, in short, much like her beloved cat, Neko: “arrogant, lazy, solitary.”
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Alma’s walls slowly crumble through her growing friendship with Irina, a young Moldovan caregiver much loved at Lark House for her tender, respectful interactions with residents, who remind her of the grandparents who raised her.
Despite her rapport with the elderly, Irina, too, is emotionally closed off, when it comes to romance, to the dismay of Alma’s grandson, Seth. Bright, grounded, sensible Irina, in her oversize clothes and Che Guevara T-shirt, has captured his heart.
Both Irina and Alma have secrets — Irina’s fully revealed in a brief but harrowing section of the novel, Alma’s teased out to its moving ending.
The “Japanese Lover” of the title is Alma’s soul mate, Ichimei Fukuda, youngest son of the Belascos’ gardener. He and Alma become fast friends shortly after Alma arrives at the home of her uncle Isaac Belasco, where her Polish Jewish parents send her at the age of 7 in 1939 to escape Nazi madness.
The novel is interspersed with love letters from “Ichi” — “an idealist, a dreamer, with a taste for drawing and poetry”— to Alma. Theirs is a transcendent love undeterred by separations over the years, beginning with the Japanese-American Fukudas’ internment in 1942 at “Topaz, the Jewel of the Desert, as the concentration camp had been called, possibly without ironic intent.”
Some of Allende’s most vivid writing is in the passages that personalize this shameful chapter of American history, when more than 120,000 men, women and children were “interned in ten concentration camps in isolated areas of the interior, while cities would be left with phantom neighborhoods full of empty homes and desolate streets, where abandoned pets and the confused spirits of the ancestors who had arrived in America with the immigrants wandered aimlessly.”
Enjoyable as it is, “The Japanese Lover” doesn’t quite have the rich scope of Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea” or “Ines of My Soul.” But it’s nice to have the prolific author back telling a family saga with meditations on forgiveness, compassion and love instead of a gruesome body count.