By Carolyn Williams
Jamie Ford’s first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is an endearing story of young love divided by familial differences. The only problem is, we’ve all heard this same story before, and Ford’s rendition does little to improve the careworn motif.
The book begins in 1986 Seattle, several months after the death of Henry Lee’s wife. He is learning to cope with his loneliness in quiet comfort, but a chance occurrence serves to bring back long-avoided questions regarding Henry’s first love.
The hotel of the title is the real Panama Hotel, and as Henry walks by one day, he happens across the discovery of a generation of Japanese families’ most precious possessions, entrusted to the hotel for safekeeping during their wartime internment and left untouched for 40 years. The unexpected appearance of this time capsule plunges Henry back into memories of his childhood and his long-lost first love.
Twelve year-old Henry Lee is struggling with the challenges of growing up Chinese in America. His father, a fanatical Chinese nationalist, has forbidden Henry to speak anything but English, creating a nearly insurmountable language barrier between Henry and his Cantonese-speaking parents. These same parents are extremely proud to tell their friends that their only son is the beneficiary of a scholarship to an all-white elementary school, carefully overlooking the fact that his Chinese contemporaries refuse to speak to him, and he usually evinces signs of physical bullying at the hands of his white classmates. Through all this, Henry maintains a sort of aloof calm, indulging only his love of jazz music as an escape from the unpleasantness of his day-to-day existence. But, of course, everything changes when a new girl arrives at school.
Said new girl is the precocious Keiko Okabe, who, despite her Japanese heritage, proudly refers to herself as an American. Like Henry, Keiko comports herself with a maturity unexpected in someone her age, and the two form an immediate bond as the only scholarship children at their school. Henry is petrified that his bigoted father will discover his friendship with a Japanese girl and goes to great lengths to keep their relationship a secret. Keiko tries gently to impart some of her own self-confidence in Henry, teaching him that his parents’ history is only part of the person he can become.
Inevitably, Keiko’s very happy Japanese-American family is shipped off to an internment camp, and the young Henry is distraught. Daring his family’s disapproval, he makes multiple illicit visits while they are being held in a nearby interim camp, but as the family is relocated, he and Keiko are truly separated, and their burgeoning love is tested.
As is typical in stories built around the “Romeo and Juliet” archetype of forbidden love, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” speaks to love’s power to overcome the tests of distance and time. However, Ford’s characters hardly command the attention and respect of their audience in the way their precursors do, and the book falls flat.