The latest novel of Isabel Allende, "the Japanese lover" is a different kind of romantic love story. It is not her usual recipe of Latino love and magical realism. She has brought together a free-spirited Californian girl with a disciplined and traditional Japanese man.
Alma Belasco, from a rich San Francisco family, falls in love with Ichimei Fakuda, son of the Japanese gardener working in the mansion of her grand father. But it was a wrong time. It was after the Japanese declaration of war against the US during the Second World War. The Americans round up the Japanese in the country including the family of Ichimei and detain them in internment camps. Having been separated without any communication, the two get on with their own separate lives. After the release from the camp, Ichimei gets married to a woman from Japan. Alma also gets married and ends up in the old-age home Lark House as a grand mother.
There is the second love story of Irina, the employee in Lark House, with Seth the grand son of Alma. Irina takes to the challenging old age home job enthusiastically to escape from her traumatic past of an abused victim. To supplement her modest salary, she does part time work of washing and grooming dogs and becomes the secretary to Alma. Irina and Seth are intrigued by the weekly delivery of flowers and letters received by Alma at the old-age home and her frequent disappearances. They investigate and discover the secret romantic story of Alma.
Allende has given a fascinating account of life in retirement homes and the way old people deal with memories, loneliness, pain and diseases while waiting for death to come. The Lark House residents have lots of stories and affairs. There is Jacques Devine, the in-house Casanova who continues his old habit of flirtation and enjoys being the heartthrob for the old ladies. He had fallen in love sixty seven times. During his earlier days as businessman in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, he had learnt the Latino art of 'appreciating women from the rear'. He falls in platonic love with the young Irina too and bequeathes his property to her.
Allende has contrasted the colorful Californian culture with the sober and sensitive Japanese value system. She has given a glimpse of Japanese culture and character. The book reminded me of the Brazilians of Japanese origin ( there are about a million of them living mostly in Sao Paulo state) who dance samba crazily and at the same time bow respectfully before the elders. It is a remarkable blend of Brazilian ecstatic exuberance and Japanese subdued sobriety.The Japanese golf club in Arauja, Sao Paulo reverberates with raunchy jokes and loud laughter, unimaginable in any club in Japan.
After having read many of Allende's novels, I enjoyed reading this one too, even when my favorite Latino flavor was missing. It was a different dish.. not a spicy Bahian Moqueca but a tasty Californian sushi roll.