By Samantha Pak
To merely state that Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is a love story would be an oversimplification. In his debut novel, Ford explores the ups and downs that come with loving another person. Although the plot of “Hotel” centers on romantic love, Ford also delves into familial and platonic love.
Using Seattle’s International District as a backdrop, the novel begins in 1986 with protagonist Henry Lee, a Chinese American widower, who comes across a crowd gathering in front of the Panama Hotel. The building had been boarded up for decades until a new owner discovered an accumulation of possessions in the basement that Japanese families left behind when they were sent to internment camps during World War II.
The discovery stirs up old memories for Henry about Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl who joined Henry at the all-white Rainier Elementary until she left with the rest of the Japanese families to the camps.
Jumping between the 1940s and 1986, the novel follows Henry as he grows up during the height of a war that produced antagonism toward not just the Japanese but toward Asians in general. The novel is also an account of Henry trying to figure out life as a widower.
As a 12-year-old boy, Henry is filled with conflicting feelings as he tentatively befriends a girl that his father considered the enemy because of the war.
When he falls in love with Keiko, Henry is determined to make it work between them — despite his father’s feelings and the fact that Keiko is being taken away to the camps.
These obstacles — and the difficult decisions he must make — put an end to Henry’s childhood quickly, and he comes to consider himself a man when he turns 13. Though this may not appear to be plausible in most cases, Henry’s strength of character and resolve will have readers believing otherwise.
Henry’s relationship with his father is something that many readers can relate to. They both believe that they are in the right and refuse to compromise on what they want. Henry’s father eventually disowns him and while this may seem a bit drastic, Ford’s depiction of the situation lends it to be believable.
While the love between Henry and Keiko is undoubtedly what drives the plot, the complicated relationship between Henry and his father is still very prominent in “Hotel.” Ford balances the two relationships very well without having one dominating the other.
The discoveries at the Panama Hotel remind Henry of a lunch he shared there with Keiko and her family. He also remembers that they were among the families that left their belongings behind in the basement, so he gains permission from the owner to search the items. Henry doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for but his memories drive him during his search.
Rediscovering his first love has left Henry with a bittersweet feeling: He finds new hope in finding Keiko but at the same time, he is still loyal to his wife, Ethel, who passed away only six months earlier.
He works with his collegiate son, Marty, and Henry realizes that their relationship is not too different than the one he shared with his own father. The search brings the father and son closer as they begin to better understand each other, and they realize they’re more similar than they had expected. Henry realizes that it’s not too late to fix things with his son.
The plot of “Hotel” has the potential to become unrealistic to the point of being melodramatic, but Ford successfully strikes enough validity through its historical events and strong characters. (end)
“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is published by Ballantine Books. $24.00.
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.
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