In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s–Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent loe that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.
I sought this book out because of the title. I didn’t really know anything about it, except that it was about Asian Americans during the second world war–and that it’s a love story of sorts. But there was something about the title that told me I need to find a copy of the book… and I couldn’t find it anywhere locally. So I had it special-ordered through Fully Booked.
Honestly, the book starts very slowly. The only thing that pushed me to keep reading was the fact that I already invested so much time in getting a copy, that it would be a great waste if I stop reading. And I’m very grateful that it took me time to find the book, and that it took me time to get into the groove of the story.
Time made Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet all the more satisfying in the end.
Author Jamie Ford doesn’t rush anything: from the introduction of the characters, the way they develop, to the relationships they form. And while this pace was frustrating at first, it ultimately works best for the story he’s telling. Because Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet is a love story that spans years. Heck, even the love story takes time to develop.
Henry, our main character, doesn’t see his love interest as one for most of the book. He sees her as a friend. And as his feelings for her develop, so does ours. Personally, my appreciation for the narrative grew just as Henry’s world expanded within the book. Author Ford begins the story with a very narrow window into Henry Lee’s life–and it’s probably the reason why the first part of the novel is so exhausting to read. Because our point-of-view is limited; we’re boxed in with Henry, and we’re yearning to get out. But we can’t go out until we get to know who Henry is, who the people in his life are. Because we need to understand him, and the people who are important to him, to understand the things he will do.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautiful story that’s not just about the love between races in the time of war; but also a powerful love story of a boy to the parents who he no longer understands, and to the son he doesn’t know as much as he would like.
And to end, I say: find a copy of the book. Take the time to read it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is worth the effort.