Isabel Allende’s novels often take place during a time of war and its aftermath when characters are forced to tap unknown reservoirs of strength and find creative, unorthodox ways of forming families to protect the vulnerable.
Her novels are invariably well plotted and often include a thread of magical realism. And they tend to be beautifully written—though in The Japanese Lover, likely the translation does not do justice to the original manuscript.
The time of war in this novel is World War II, with the concentration camps in Germany and the Japanese internment camps in America. And the long tail on the war likely made places like Moldova (where Irina’s story begins) a place to leave.
Early in the war, young Alma, with her Jewish parentage, is sent from Poland to live with the wealthy Belasco family in San Francisco. In her loneliness, she is befriended and comforted by her older cousin, Nathaniel Belasco. And she is utterly captivated by young Ichimei Fukuda, the Japanese gardener’s son, whose family is one of many sent to an internment camp.
As the years pass after the war, Ichimei’s life takes its own path, and Alma grows up and marries her cousin Nathaniel and has a son with him. And the son grows up and has a son, Seth, who grows up to be one of the main chroniclers of his grandmother’s life—including the undying love story between her and gentle Ichimei.
In the time present of the story, Alma is elderly and Seth is trying to complete a history of the wealthy and well-known Belasco family before his grandmother dies. Of great puzzlement to Seth is why, “early in 2010 his grandmother’s personality underwent a complete change in the space of two hours. Although she had been a successful artist and someone who always fulfilled her obligations, she suddenly cut herself off from the world, family, and friends, shutting herself away in an old people’s home that was beneath her and deciding, in her daughter-on-law Doris’s opinion, to dress like a Tibetan refugee.”
The overall movement of the novel is to discover why. Why does she do his sudden, outrageous, and inexplicable thing? What happened to cause such a dramatic turn?
Seth and Irina (a young woman who works at the old people’s home and hides a huge secret of her own) come together to love and support Alma, and to find out why she made such a dramatic change.
To tell the story, the narration begins with a few steps forward in the characters’ lives, reaches back in time to reveal something important, takes a few more steps forward, reaches back in time to reveal something else important. Over and over again—until the reader finally and satisfyingly understands why Alma’s whole life changed in the space of two hours.
Allende, through Alma, as seen by Irina—who is a kind of acolyte in the complicated ritual of dying—presents an evocative, compelling picture of aging unto death. Yes, aging is troublesome. It involves unrelenting loss. And it is inevitable. But Alma moves toward it with passion, discipline, imagination, and a touch of whimsey. Her soothing ritual of long weekends away with Ichimei help her linger on the bridge between life and death with her true love.
The Japanese Lover feels singular in the way it depicts growing old and dying as a heady distillation of life. — Sharelle Moranville