May 24, 2009

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

This is the last day of vacation, but I'm actually writing it beforehand. Therefore, I can finally say I've left the country!

Customs: Where are you from?
Mom: Texas
Customs: Why were you in Canada?
Mom: Well, we went to eat lunch.
Customs: . . . but why were you up here?

Book Cover

By Jamie Ford

Sometimes I just want to take issue with covers. Yes, there is a parasol on this one, but would you think this is about a Chinese boy and Japanese girl in WWII Seattle? It's just a generic literary fiction cover. You have to look close to notice details of the clothing.

The "present" strand of the narrative is set in 1986, as Henry Lee's son Mary is graduating. He's also getting married and ready to introduce his father to his girlfriend. At the same time, belongings Japanese families left hidden when they had to go to internment camps are found in the Panama Hotel. It's a cache which Henry knows contains the belongings of his old friend Keiko Okabe.

This leads to the past narrative, which goes from 1941 until the Japanese surrender. Of course, during this time the Chinese hated the Japanese. (Not that they're really fond of them now. Their trading partnership has been affected both by edited textbooks and official visits to the Yakusuni Shrine by politicians.) But at this time the Japanese Imperial Army had invaded China and the soldiers were not treating the people well. (WWII began in Asia with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria. The most notorious incident is the Rape of Nanking on December 9, 1937.) Henry's father, born in China, is strongly involved in the Kuomintang's efforts in the USA.

But as a scholarship student, Henry helps out at his school's kitchen. He's joined by the only other Asian student, Keiko, a nisei. He's young enough to realize she's a nice girl and also into jazz. As they develop a friendship, Henry questions his loyalty to his family and what he's willing to give up for her. Their problems deepen as the war continues and Keiko is eventually put into a camp.

Jamie Ford manages to capture the atmosphere of WWII Seattle very well. The 1986 sections tend to pale in comparison to the adventures of Keiko and Henry, and their older friend Sheldon the saxophonist. The 1986 sections often seem more like placeholders to offer some parallel to Henry's earlier life. It seems like some of them could be cut. I did like that Henry was nostalgic but not regretful. He did live well.

I really enjoyed HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET. For one thing, it was structured perfectly for reading in the car. The chapters are short, meaning I could easily reach somewhere to stop when I needed to stop. However, they flowed well and kept momentum moving while I didn't need stop. The 1986 sections did make me curious about what happened to Henry and Keiko's relationship.

It's emotional but not overly sentimental, and it's an interesting slice of history. Henry does have a rather progressive personality. His and Keiko's relationship felt real, though a little adult for two twelve-year-olds. (They were culturally expected to be adults at thirteen, but I know I wasn't ready to make big decisions at that age.) It's also easy to see how Henry and Ethel, his future wife, fell in love. You don't begrudge her for being who he marries. I can see why HOTEL AT THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET has become popular.

Review copy provided by Pump Up Your Book Promotion.


  1. Hi Liviania, thanks for the lovely review. Have a great weekend!


  2. Great review. I've heard many good things about this book and definitely want to read it.

  3. Too funny! I bet that customs agent remembered that all day. I just don't think Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is for me but most reviewers really seem to love it :)


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