Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Set during both WWII and in the mid-1980s, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an exceptional novel about a time in history American we are too willing to forget…the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. Set in Seattle, Hotel focuses around main character Henry, who is a young 12-year-old Chinese American boy in 1942, where much of the book takes place. During these historical chapters, he meets Keiko, a Japanese girl who is a second generation American. They both start out apprehensive of each other (Henry’s father loathes the Japanese) but eventually grow to care deeply for each other. When Keiko and her family, along with all of the other Japanese families, are rounded up and moved to camps set up by the American government, Henry is not only unhappy but confused…confused since Keiko is more American than he is. Keiko does not even speak Japanese. This contrasts with Henry’s background…where his parents speak only Chinese and they force him to speak only “his English.”
I really liked this novel. It has one of the best, most moving stories I’ve read. Ever. Now, mind you, I am not saying this is the best book I have ever read. Why? What is the difference between “best story” and “best book?” Simple: the way it was written. As I was reading Hotel, I found myself thinking about another book I had read that was also set in the Pacific Northwest about Japanese Americans: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Even though Snow takes place AFTER WWII and Hotel focuses on events that happen DURING the war, I continued to make comparisons between the two while I was reading Hotel. Comparisons to the story and the location and the romantic elements…NOT comparisons to the writing. Guterson’s novel from 1994 is filled with lyrical prose that I remember submerging myself into and not wanting to escape from…vivid from page one to the end, brilliantly bringing to life an entire setting through the pages. The love story in Snow between the main characters is enhanced by the poetic words given to describe both them and their surroundings. Jamie Ford’s writing in Hotel is good…very good. It’s just not excellent. It’s the story in Hotel that you want to savor, not the prose. Had Ford brought to Hotel the expressive, inspired language Guterson used, Hotel might just have been a true literary masterpiece. But, having a minor masterpiece is still pretty good! It’s a great, page-turning read and a story that will stay with you long after the final page.