The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

A debut novel by Jaime Ford, this story retells the conflicts of a Chinese man during WWII as his best friend,and love of his life, Keiko, is caught in the anti-Japanese hysteria of the war climate. Told in alternating real time (on the recent occasion of his wife’s passing) and flash back, Henry’s own life mirrors many of the bigger conflicts. I have to say, having very little personal experience with Chinese and Japanese cultures, I found this interior glimpse interesting, but not terribly original. We could have been reading about Meads and Persians for all the individuality. But several key things resonated with me and kept me turning the pages. The tender Keiko is a jewel. You root for her from the first acquaintance–she’s a second generation American, she insists. I loved the symbolism of the ume tree Henry plants when his son is born and I loved that Henry got caught up in the jazz clubs and speakeasies of that time, finding real friendship with Sheldon, a black saxophone player. “At least we’re together” Sheldon tells Henry in the crux of their friendship that spans the years of the War through the end of their lives. Music is a tangible thread between these two unlikely people. BUT, a beautiful part of the story for me was the Panama Hotel. The building becomes a character when, prior to its destruction, Japanese family heirlooms are discovered in the basement. This becomes the vehicle that leads Henry down memory lane, but I love what is says about living, breathing memories hidden in  buildings decomposed by time. The theme of living somewhere between the bitter and the sweet in life is poignant, and defines Henry’s choices.  And just in case Nicholas Sparks ever looks to retire, there’s another man who loves to write about love waiting in the wings.