Isabel Allende’s latest novel The Japanese Lover started as a pleasant enough read. Irina Bazili, a young girl from a poor background in communist Moldova, gets a job working at the kind of retirement home you hope exists in real life. The inhabitants are people who
… know what it means to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that he rest of the world is going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue and indifference toward everything.
But they chose to ignore these issues and to spend their final years taking part in the hubbub of life. At Lark House they reject the idea that fun consists of watching TV quiz shows or being dragooned into group sing-alongs. These residents are in San Francisco after all. They’re an odd mixture of left wing intellectuals, former hippies and second rate artists. So they get to act in their own productions, use alternative forms of healing, and indulge in marijuana on demand (though the centre’s strict no smoking policy means they can’t inhale indoors).
Irina’s calm manner and air of efficiency brings her to the notice of the home’s wealthiest resident, the semi-retired silk screen artist Alma Bolsacova. Working as Alma’s assistant, Irina becomes intrigued about Alma’s past and her long-standing love affair with the son of her family’s Japanese gardener. This is a love story that spans more than six decades. It moves back and forth in time to introduce a geographically and culturally diverse set of characters, tracing the obstacles put in the way of the lovers, first the internment of Japanese inhabitants after the attack on Pearl Harbour and then the opposition of her wealthy family.
Allende deals realistically with the hardships of aging. Lark House residents are sanguine about their dwindling faculties that will result in a gradual move from the ground of floor of the home to the fourth floor (named “Paradise”) But in relating Alma and Irina’s story, there is far too much telling going on rather than showing how each character reacts to events or how they feel. Allende also commits the – to me – unpardonable sin of including large chunks of background information gleaned from research with little attempt to make it feel a natural evolution of the narrative. We thus get three pages or so of the aftermath of Pearl Harbour and the decision of the American government to protect against a “yellow invasion” by confining all those of Japanese origin to interment camps in desert states. It reads almost like an extract from an encyclopedia. Frankly speaking, I found Allende’s narrative style rather uninspiring throughout the novel. It becomes in fact absurd at times It becomes absurd at times. Describing the process of writing a novel, for example, we learn: “The words sprang forth unaided with the fertile womb of the briefcase and strolled tranquilly through the panorama of the imagination.”
If “happiness writes white” then goodness is its paler cousin in this novel. Irina Bazili becomes indispensable to the residents of Lark House “thanks to her open, friendly attitude” and her determination to use her job as “the opportunity to give to others what she hadn’t been able to give to [her grandparents].” Everyone who comes into contact with her seems to fall under her spell. One elderly lothario leaves her a substantial legacy; the home’s volunteer doctor becomes her closest friend and Alma Bolsacova’s son falls in live with her. Irina’s qualities are not doubt admirable but she has far too high a dosage of the Pollyanna gene flowing through her veins to make me warm to her or to find her believable.
I can see how many fans of Isabel Allende might view The Japanese Lover as another very readable novel from this best selling author. I am certainly not one of them. I made it as far as the half way mark and then decided enough was enough.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende was published on November 5, 2015 by Simon and Schuster in the UK. My copy was provided courtesy of the publisher via Net Galley