Sweet Story, Bitter in the Telling

4 May

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Ah, unrequited love. It’s my favorite kind of love story. It can be so sweet, until it all ends so bitterly.

So it is with Keiko and Henry, who meet and fall in love when they are just 12 years old. He’s Chinese, she’s Japanese, it’s Seattle, and it’s 1942.

In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford tells the story of these star-crossed lovers, divided by prejudice and separated physically when she’s sent off to a Japanese internment camp.

This novel garnered a lot of good buzz when it was published, and I can only assume it’s because it had a stellar marketing and PR buzz. Why anyone thought it warranted such a commotion, I can’t say.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It’s a promising debut for what should be a teen book. Ford frames several themes in a way that’s appropriate for middle-school social studies and language arts discussions: complicated father-son relationships, prejudice and tolerance, and assimilation challenges of immigrants. He layers these on top of the historical events of 1942, specifically the Japanese internment of World War II and the deep animosity between the Japanese and Chinese.

He does a fine job of capturing the sights and sounds of Seattle, bringing to life its sights and sounds and giving a distinct feeling of place, but the plot is predictable and flat, lacking the tension that normally keeps me turning the page.

His characters are completely out of character. In 1942, Henry and Keiko are 12, but speak and act as if they’re in their 20s or 30s. Far too sophisticated for their ages. In 1984, Henry is just 52, but is presented as a doddering 80-something.

The ending ties up in a neat little bow. It’s perfect for Hollywood, but for the discerning reader, I’d like more complexity and depth.

Definitely not a keeper.

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