Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

His father pointed at the door.  "If you walk out that door -- if you walk out that door now, you are no longer part of this family.  You are no longer Chinese.  You are not part of us anymore.  Not a part of me."

Henry didn't even hesitate.  He touched the doorknob, feeling the brass cold and hard in his hand.  He looked back, speaking his best Cantonese.  "I am what you made me, Father."  He opened the heavy door.  "I...am an American."  (from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, page 185)

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautifully written story set in Seattle that takes readers back and forth in time as they follow the story of Henry Lee.  In 1986, Henry is in his 50s and dealing with the recent death of his wife, Ethel, when the new owner of the Panama Hotel unearths the belongings of numerous Japanese families in the basement -- Japanese families who left their photographs and other personal items behind when the U.S. government shipped them off to interment camps during World War II.  The announcement causes Henry to reminisce about his best friend and first love, Keiko Okabe.

In 1942, Henry and Keiko are 12 years old and struggling to fit in at their all-white school.  Henry is a Chinese American whose father orders him to speak only English in their home -- even though his parents' inability to understand the language means they no longer communicate with their son -- and wear a button stating "I Am Chinese" so that he is not mistaken for the Japanese "enemy."  The button does little to stop the bullies at school from beating up on him because of his race.  Keiko is a Japanese American who doesn't even speak Japanese and finds herself unwanted by her country, the only country she's ever known.  Henry knows his parents wouldn't approve of his friendship with Keiko, but even when she and her family are sent to internment camps, he keeps in touch with her -- at least at first.

As a grown man, Henry is trying to forge a relationship with his college-aged son, Marty, and is still dealing with his feelings for Keiko and his issues with his father.  He finds himself drawn to the Panama Hotel and the items in the basement and begins looking for something that will bring him face-to-face with the past.

In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford has created such endearing characters in Henry and Keiko, whose innocence is marred by the ignorance of a country at war.  The first word that comes to my mind when I think about Ford's handling of Henry and Keiko's young love and Henry's love for Ethel and desire to care for her through a difficult illness is tenderness.  He successfully balances this tenderness with the harsh treatment of Asian immigrants and their American-born children, allowing readers to feel Henry's anger and confusion.  As a Chinese American himself, Ford does a wonderful job presenting the conflicts in Henry's relationship with his father; readers can understand that his father wants the best for him, but we feel a great sadness that his own prejudices and stubbornness stand in the way of a loving relationship.  The bitter and the sweet converge several times, creating a story that tugs at your heart.  I was drawn to Ford's writing and Henry's story from the very beginning, and it was difficult to put the book down.

Click here for an excerpt and a reading group guide.

About the Author

Jamie Ford is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung, who emigrated in 1865 from Kaiping, China, to San Francisco, where he adopted the western name "Ford," thus confusing countless generations.  Ford is an award-winning short-story writer, an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and a survivor of Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp.  Having grown up near Seattle's Chinatown, he now lives in Montana with his wife and children.

Stay tuned for my interview with Jamie Ford.

Click here to see the rest of the blog tour stops for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet from Random House for review purposes.


Melody said...

I enjoyed reading this book; the setting is beautiful and bittersweet. I look forward to the interview, Anna. :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

This book was simply precious. I listened to it on audio, and the narration was equally as beautiful. I thought it might be a tad bit too wrapped up and predictable at the end, but it was so heartwarming that I was able to forgive!

Anonymous said...

One of the best books of '09. I really loved this book, good imagery and a joy to read.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Great review Anna; I loved this book too.

Karen Harrington said...

Wonderful post, Anna. I had a chance to meet Jamie Ford this past weekend and hear him read from Hotel. It was terrific. He has an upcoming novel that is also a historical love story and I can't wait to read it, too! (Stop by my blog today to see pics of the author event with Jamie and others.)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review Anna! I loved this book - I sobbed copious amounts at the end (which was not sad, by the way, but that doesn't stop me!)

bermudaonion said...

I can't wait to read this. You've made Henry and Keiko sound like characters I will love.

Jennifer said...

Great interview! I'll be hosting a tour stop on Thursday!

Serena said...

I'll be reviewing this book later this month as well. Great review!

Carrie said...

Buying the book! Just can't wait to read it! Thanks for the review!

LisaMM said...

Great review, Anna! I haven't read the book yet but am so drawn to the subject matter. Thanks so much for all the time and effort that went into reading and reviewing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. We really appreciate it!

Darlene said...

Great review Anna. This book is on my shelf. I really need to move it up on the pile.

Aarti said...

I've heard nothing but good about this book. Thanks for a thoughtful review!

Julie P. said...

It was such a touching story. We are reading this book for book club next month. I think I'll have to re-read it!

wisteria said...

I loved this book. It was one of my 2009 top pics. Terrific review. I'm heading over to your interview with Jamie Ford now. Awesome!

Lisa said...

I'm so eager to get into this one; everyone seems to love it!

Hazra said...

Great review! This book sounds like a must-read. I liked the interview as well- your questions were insightful.

Dana said...

Oh, this book looks really sweet! I've been hearing about it for a while but I guess I should finally crack and put it on my TBR list. Thanks for the great review!

Anna said...

~Melody: "Beautiful and bittersweet," I couldn't agree more!

~Sandy: I agree about the end, but I loved Ford's writing and the characters that the predictability didn't bother me at all!

~southernmatrix: Glad to hear you really enjoyed it, too.

~Diane: Thanks! I'm glad you loved it as much as I did.

~Scobberlotcher: I'm jealous! ;) I'll definitely have to check out those pics.

~rhapsodyinbooks: It's not sad, but it's heartwarming and definitely brings tears to the eyes.

~bermudaonion: Oh, I do hope you love them as much as I did!

~Jennifer: I'm looking forward to it!

~Serena: I can't wait for a lunch-time discussion on this book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

~Carrie: Great! I hope you love it, too!

~LisaMM: It was my pleasure!

~Dar: Definitely! I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

~Aarti: The book deserves all the praise. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point.

~Julie: If you do re-read it, let me know how it is the second time around!

~wisteria: The book certainly is making my "best of books read in 2010" list!

~Lisa: I sure hope you do, too!

~Hazra: Thank you!

~Dana: Thanks! I hope you get to read it soon and love it as much as I did.