They say that whatever you do on the first day of the New Year tells how you’ll spend your time that year. I’m so hoping this is true for books, too, because the first book I read in 2009 was one of my favorites in a long, long time.
I’ll apologize in advance for teasing – it’s not out until late January – but I simply can’t wait that long to talk about HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford. I’d read a mention of it months ago on PubRants, the blog kept by Jamie’s agent Kristin Nelson. I was excited to read this one because I knew it was set in Seattle during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and that’s a time period that has always interested me. I expected an interesting trip through history, but what I got was so, so much more than that.
Henry Lee is still mourning the death of his wife when he learns that the belongings of Japanese Americans hidden in the basement of Seattle’s Panama Hotel for decades have been discovered. Henry is drawn to the basement, and what he’s searching for there opens a door he thought he had closed forever. The story switches back and forth between 1986 and the 1940s, when a 12-year-old Henry attending an American school (he’s "scholarshipping" as his father likes to say) meets another international student working in the school kitchen. Keiko is Japanese American, the enemy according to Henry’s father, but the two become best friends before her family is imprisoned in one of the relocation camps.
This book does a phenomenal job exploring the history and attitudes of this time period, and Ford’s portrayal of Seattle’s ethnic neighborhoods is amazing. But really, the thing that pulled me into this novel the most was the richness of the relationships — Henry and Keiko, Henry and his father, Henry’s mother and his father, and Henry and his own son. HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET looks at the best and worst of human relationships, the way we regard others, the way we find ourselves reenacting our relationships with our parents with our own children, the choices we make along the way. Mostly, though, this book reminds us that there is always room — and time — for forgiveness and redemption.
I finished this book in tears, moved by the people who came to life so vividly in the story and sad that it had to end at all. HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is a perfect, perfect choice for book clubs or for anyone craving a compelling story about human nature at its worst and at its best. An amazing, amazing book. It will be one of your favorites, too, I can almost promise.