Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
It's true. I admit it. I do on occasion judge books by their cover. I initially 'judged' this book by both its title and its cover, and overall the contents lived up to the poignant promise on the jacket.
Last night, on the eve of a guaranteed snow day, I stayed up past my work-week bedtime to finish Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. This historical fiction novel toggles between two time periods in Northwest America - World War II and 1986 (or "present day" for the main character, Chinese-American Henry Lee). Lee's struggles in 1986 include the loss of his wife, a semi-distant and forced relationship with his son, the aging and imminent death of a close friend and jazz legend, and the unrequited heartache he has grappled with since losing his childhood sweetheart in a complex web of events that unfolded during World War II. The 1940's component of the narrative tells the story of young Lee, who is both coming of age and coming to terms with his own heritage in a complicated world. Torn between the traditional beliefs of his Cantonese father, the teasing and torture of his all-white American schoolmates, the influence of an African-American Jazz musician, and the unlikely friendship that emerges between Lee and the open-minded Japanese-American girl, Keiko Okabe, Lee's story unfolds as the country's story of World War II plays out in different ways for Americans of all races. The Panama Hotel, an old Seattle landmark, anchors the narrative in both time periods and gives the story it's poetic and compelling title.
Ford's novel offers a balanced blend of history, romance, and the tension that existed between being Chinese and being American (in the case of the main character) or being Japanese and being American (in the case of Lee's childhood love interest) during a time when the loyalty and belief systems of all Americans were being put to a test after the events of Pearl Harbor. True to the title, in two words this book is both bitter and sweet. The strength, beauty, and honesty present in the World War II chapters compensates for the predictability of the 1986 narrative thread. This is a book that could easily be adapted into screenplay that would delight in giving cinematic life to the two time periods, the Japanese internment camps, the jazz scene in Seattle and the Panama Hotel itself. Indeed, many parts of the book move effortlessly through the reader's mind like scenes in a movie when you know how it will end, but feel yourself hopelessly riveted to the screen anyway.
Throughout the book it is Lee's internal and external conflicts, coupled with Ford's simple but graceful prose and the natural shifts between the two time periods, that keep readers invested. Ford makes the reader experience for themselves the clash between growing up in the 1940's straddling two contradictory cultures and belief systems. "Young Henry Lee stopped talking to his parents when he was twelve years old. Not because of some silly childhood tantrum, but because they asked him to. That was how it felt anyway. They asked--no, told--him to stop speaking their native Chinese. It was 1942, and they were desperate for him to learn English. Which only made Henry more confused when his father pinned a button to his school shirt that read, 'I am Chinese.' The contrast seemed absurd." (pg. 15).
If you want an easy read that is heavier on the sweet, with sprinkles throughout of the bitter, explore Ford's debut work for a glimpse into the past and a look at World War II from a unique perspective.