Friday, February 13, 2009

A review of Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel by Jamie Ford
(Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-50533-0)

If you are looking for a very nice book, well written, with some wonderful characters and a fascinating historical background, have I got a book for you.

The story opens in 1986, when Henry, a recently widowed man in his mid-fifties with a college age son, comes across a crowd outside the Panama Hotel in Seattle, his hometown. The hotel had been boarded up and empty since WWII, and when it was bought and renovations began, it was found to hold a forgotten 'treasure', the possessions of dozens of Japanese families who had stored there belonging they could not take with them when they were shipped out of coastal port city to inland relocation' camps. Henry is so deeply effected by the sight and by the remembrance of those things stored there, forgotten, because he knew one of those families, the Okabe's, and in particular, their young daughter Keiko.

As the book changes times, and it does, back and forth throughout the book, it is 1942, and 12 year old Henry, the son of Chinese immigrants, is having a difficult time. Sent by his father to an all 'white' school for the advantages he thinks it will give his son, he is hated by the other Chinese children for being too 'white' and hated by many of the white kids for being Chinese. The only saving grace is his job, part of his “scholarshipping”, working lunchtime in the school cafeteria and the arrival of a new helper, fellow student, Japanese American Keiko. It might be difficult being Chinese at the time, but to be Japanese in a west coast port city after the attack on Pearl Harbor is becoming next to impossible. From the first, they are fast friends, but it is a friendship that must remain secret from his family, especially his father, who is a Chinese nationalist who hates the Japanese, not for their bombing of Pearl Harbor but for their invasion of China. If his father finds out, he will disown Henry, but no matter his sense of duty and loyalty to his family, Henry will not give up his friendship and ultimately his love for Keiko.

Or will he?

While set partially against the often forgotten story of the Japanese relocation..or internment..or as FDR himself called them at times, concentration camps of World War II and partial in the 1980's, The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is ultimately not a story about history or politics so much as a story about family and responsibility and love and the decisions we make because of these things. And whether, with the passage of time and changes in circumstances, we can, as Henry's old jazz musician friend Sheldon implores him, ”fix it” and perhaps undo some of the mistakes we make in our lives and repair relationships while there is still time.

It is not a perfect book. First, and to me, most disconcerting, was the age of the characters. The 12 year old Henry thinks and behaves like someone at least several years older. If the characters had been say 15 or 16...but 12 just did not rings true. I actually though at one point that I had misread and missed a jump of a few years in the timeline, but no. On the other hand, the older Henry is just 56 (I say this as someone a few years but he acts like someone much older, like an old man. A minor point overall, but a bit grating.
Second, there is a Japanese phrase that Sheldon teaches his young friend to show off to Keiko. It is oai deki te ureshii desu, translated as 'How are you today beautiful?', a phrase that reoccurs throughout the book and is rather key to the story. The only problem is that it seems that the phrase actually mean something closer to just “hello, I am glad to see you”. If I can google it and get it right, so should the author or an editor.
Ok, maybe I am nitpicking...but things like that bother me a bit
Of course, I also wondered how realistic it was that the Panama Hotel stayed boarded up and unused for decades, with all those belonging unclaimed in the basement. Except that part is actually true!

Overall, it was a very nice read, at times a touching story, a book that I would certainly give a recommendation to. If you do read it, and I hope that you do, watch out for my two favorite characters, the afore mentioned Shelton and the cafeteria lady, Mrs. Beatty. She might not say much, but you can often tell a person's heart and their mettle by their actions and not just what they say.
A point very true to many of the characters of this very enjoyable book.

for a few more opinions, check out....

The Book Lady's Blog
Booking Mama
The Biblio Brat
Medieval Bookworm
Shhh I'm Reading
Pudgy Penguin Perusals
Many a Quaint and Curious Volume

Available from Amazon


  1. I think this sounds like something I'd really like. Why didn't I request this when I had the chance? *sigh* Not that I can't buy it, but I am not going to get around to reading any bought books until next year at the rate I'm going!

  2. Oh, I know what you mean by

  3. I loved Sheldon too! I do hope we get to see more of him.

  4. according to the interview with the author at the end of the ARC copy, he is going to write short stories with both characters and post them on his website,

  5. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

  6. Hey Caite, I just reviewed this yesterday also. Do you mind if I put a link to your review at the end of mine?

    As to the age thing, one of my friends has a sister who was married at age 14, having met her husband when she was 10 years old and they have been married now for 63 years.

  7. certainly, add away! In fact I added you to my list of reviews...and I didn't even ask. But then I didn't ask anyone! ;-)

    Yes..on the age thing, I considered that. In some cultures, like the China of Henry's father, at 13 he was out on his own, considered an adult. But that is not the culture Henry grew up in. As he says...he is an American.
    Possible and yes, maybe I am picky, but all the ages just felt off to me.

    Which is why I have decided to add links to other's mitigate my contrariness.

  8. I hope to get to this one this month. I have the ARC and have heard great reviews. Thanks for posting your thoughts.

  9. I've got a couple books in my pile with a Japanese background. I cannot get into The Commoner, which is a fictional account of the Princess of Japan. This book sounds very comforting. Thank you for the great review.

  10. Oh, I'm disappointed that the Japanese phrase was actually incorrect. I hate those little things. I'm glad I didn't try to look it up while I was reading.

  11. This book is a local setting for me, so I'm really looking forward to reading it. Very nice review, Caite!

  12. Meghan, I just don't get it. If you want a phrase that will translate as 'How are you today beautiful?' then just find someone, anyone, who speaks Japanese and have it translated. Easy...even I could do it. So why get it wrong? Yes, maybe I am just

    Michele, I think you will enjoy it. I love books with a Pacific Northwest setting...I have never been there but maybe, like New England, I like the combination of weather and the ocean.

  13. Great review; I just finished it and really liked it !


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