The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (2015)

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Upon finishing The Japanese Lover, my first thought was, “why did I not read that book sooner?” The entire novel was mesmerizing: its gorgeous prose, its imperfect but lovely characters; its sadness that felt transcendent rather than heart-wrenching; but most of all its beautiful love story.

Drawing on a huge range of historical events, social upheavals, and covering more than eight decades, The Japanese Lover is a breath-taking epic of a novel, but it is also a novel about the deep connection between two people, Alma and Ichimei, who –over the course of their lives — found ways to love one another, despite all odds.

As the novel opens we meet Irina, a Romanian immigrant who has begun working at an unconventional, San Francisco Bay Area retirement home, Lark House. Despite her youth and lack of experience, she immediately finds comfort in caring for her clients and satisfaction in making their lives better. When Alma, an aloof artist who lives at Lark House, develops an interest in Irina, she hires the young woman as personal secretary and they set to work– along with Alma’s grandson Seth — on a project to record Alma’s life story.

“Irina tried to understand what it meant to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that rest of the world was going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue, and indifference toward everything not directly related to you, even children and grandchildren, whose absence was not felt as it had once been and whose names you struggle to remember. She felt tender toward their wrinkles, their arthritic fingers, and poor sight.” 67

Soon the three of them are traveling back into Alma’s memories of her childhood in Poland and her emigration to America, which Allende paints for us in vivid flashback scenes, that tell of a little girl’s fear and loneliness and the blanket of stoicism she cloaks herself in to soften her pain. Entering into her life are two boys who will become the men who shape her life: her cousin Nathaniel and the gardener’s son, Ichimei.

Slowly, Alma tells her story to Irina and Seth, who fill in the blanks with photos, archival documents, and sleuthing. While Alma’s life is revealed to us in short bursts, so is Irina’s own troubled tale of immigration and heart-break. Irina is a hard-working young woman who wants only to care for her aging clients with kindness and be left to the anonymity she so desperately wants. More and more, her work with the residents at Lark House and the  project that is bringing her closer to Alma and Seth is drawing her out and asking that she share more of herself with the people around her.

On and on the book winds, back and forth, filling in the blanks of Alma’s life and her romance with Ichimei; of Ichimei’s terrifying years of Internment and segregation; their illicit romance and its ups and downs. Alongside those tales are ones from Irina of her meager existence in post-Cold War Romania, her horrific experiences after emigrating, and the shell of a life she feels she has had to create in order to survive. Those tales, while sad at times, remain uplifting as the characters from the past are given new chances, fresh choices, and more time to love as their lives unfold.

“Alma gave herself to the unconscious joy of love. She wondered how nobody noticed the bloom on her skin, the bottomless dark of her eyes, the lightness of her footsteps, the languor in her voice, the burning energy she could not and would not control. She wrote in her diary that she was floating and felt bubbles of mineral water on her skin, making the down on her body bristle with pleasure; that her heart had blown up like a balloon and was sure to burst; although there was no room for anyone by Ichimei in that huge, inflated heart because the rest of the world had become distant and hazy…the need for her to know she was loved was insatiable.” 166-167

Each story is painted in vivid detail by Allende with writing is so elegant, so restrained that it almost — only almost — seems aloof. I think of it as causally brilliant. Underneath the simplicity of her language, however, there is intelligence, wisdom, warmth and heart but never sentimentality. Even when her writing is at its most restrained — those scenes that deal with the most difficult heartaches — you can still feel her love for her characters and her sympathy for their plight. It is almost as if these scenes are made just a bit more bearable to read when presented at a remove. Tragedies endured by the characters are discussed but not belabored; the reader has no problem filling in the blanks when it comes to the hardship and abuse that was suffered, and Allende seems to acknowledge that it would be undignified to give those horrors too much space on the page.

Allende tells stories of deaths and of aging and dying that are frank and melancholy but somehow not morose, rather matter of fact. Death — theirs to come and the deaths of loved ones –is on the minds of all the characters; it is their constant companion, louder and more insistent for some than others.

“Alma suspected that death was drawing closer. Previously, she could sense it in the neighborhood, then hear it whispering in the dark corners of the house, but now it was lurking around her apartment. At sixty she thought of death in abstract terms as something that did not concern her; at seventy it was a distant relative who was easy to forget because it never arose in conversation, but would inevitably come to visit one day. At eighty, she had become acquainted with it and talked about it.” 184-185

The characters who began the book as strangers become family to one another. Even those who are no longer alive and only exist inside the stories Alma tells become precious to Seth and Irina. The love Irina, Seth, and Alma find with one another lifts them all up and makes it possible for all of them to make peace with the past and, for the aging, to begin to let go of living. For Alma, conjuring Ichimei up for her stories, revisiting his letters, and reliving their romance brings her enormous joy and comfort.

The book is a masterpiece. Allende’s language is at times soft and gentle, at others strong and powerful but always perfectly captures her characters and their emotions. Although the novel describes wide-arcing stories that cover almost eighty years, it is told with a tempo that is fast but not rushed, as if Allende, like Alma, has much to say before time runs out.

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