Friday, March 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover
Isabelle Allende, 2015.

I was looking for confident, grown-up, sophisticated writing, and as usual Allende provides that.  However, it is just not sufficient.

The novel's premise and indeed, storyline, is fascinating.  Alma, a young Jewish girl, is dispatched to safety from wartime Poland by her parents, into the arms of a distant but loving uncle and his family, the wealthy Belascos of San Francisco.  The girl knows, with precocious and insightful intuition, that she will never see her parents again.  In her new life she works hard to attach herself to her cousin, trying to recreate the adoring and close relationship she had with her brother in Poland.  Her cousin's best friend is Ichimei, the son of the household's Japanese gardener, who becomes the eponymous Japanese lover.

The novel traces Alma's maturing into a young woman, her eventual marriage, and her decades long affair with Ichimei.  There is a parallel thread of the young companion she hires, Irina, herself a displaced and damaged refugee, and her involvement with the Belascos.  Along the way there is a description of the shameful Japanese internment as experienced by Ichimei's family.

In this way the novel is similar to Allende's other books, that cover generations and national histories.  But somehow the story is curiously flat.  There are pages of descriptions of Alma's clandestine passion for Ichimei, but no passion itself.  The story is told from the vantage point of the end of Alma's life, when she seems aloof, condescending, and dried up; unattractive central characters are hard to take in a novel of this sort.  Irina -- bright, energetic, sympathetic -- could have been the grease for the skids, but her story is allowed to peter out.

In the end I found I had lost interest in Alma, and the other characters were not fully developed enough for me to be hooked.  There was also a strange anachronistic quality to the writing which further created distance.  Somehow it felt like the story belonged to the 1940s, or even to the mid 1800s, and from time to time I would be jarred by references to very current dates and events, up to and including this decade.  (Interestingly, the cover art reinforces this sense.)

Most disappointing, though, was the description of the relationship between Alma and Ichimei.  Here is rich material, that can be mined for all the nuances of the potentially explosive differences of class, race, religion and national origin -- exactly the kind of material that D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forester and Henry James mined to such great effect, in a prose and style that seems to be from the same epoch as Allende's.  But all of this is skimmed over, touched on lightly or in passing, as if it were a bad romance novel -- but without the bodice heaving.

Mar 2016