Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford
Dear Persons who may have certain ideas about Montana writers: Not all of us write about fishing, horses or ranching. Some of us write scenes that happen (gasp!) indoors. And don’t let the University of Montana fool you — it is entirely possible to be an author in the Big Sky State without first having completed their creative writing program.
Take Jamie Ford, for instance. Although he grew up near Seattle’s Chinatown, he now lives in my hometown of Great Falls with his family. He may not be a native, but can we go ahead and claim him? Yeah? Great Falls authors, represent!
Cheerleading aside, I started this book really wanting to enjoy it, despite historical novels being something to which I’m not usually drawn. Ford tells the story of a first generation Chinese-American, Henry Lee, who we first see standing outside of the Panama Hotel, located in what used to be Seattle’s Japantown. The building’s owner has just discovered the abandoned possessions of Japanese families who were forced into internment camps during World War II, and Henry is certain that the belongings of his long lost love are still in the basement.
The story bounces back and forth between 1986 and 1942, starting when Henry is about to turn thirteen years old. His father is a Chinese nationalist, and after Pearl Harbor, he requires Henry to wear a button reading “I am Chinese,” and to “speak his American.” At school, he is tormented for being different, and the Chinese children tease him for going to a white school. His only friend is a jazz street musician, Sheldon. One day, a new girl arrives to work alongside him in the school lunchroom, a Japanese-American student named Keiko Okabe. The two form a fast friendship that evolves into first love, all while the war progresses and life in Seattle becomes far more dangerous for Japanese families.
If the plot sounds terribly Romeo and Juliet, it does not come off that way. Still, I have a few quibbles with the writing itself. Perhaps it’s a matter of my own taste, but I could have done with a lot less simile and metaphor. 1986 Henry seems more prone to it than his younger self, but some of it felt a bit, “Look, I’m writing!”
Within just two pages near the beginning of the book, I wondered if I’d be continually distracted by passages like these:
“The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.”
Regarding his son:
“But college also seemed to keep him out of Henry’s life, which had been acceptable when Ethel was alive, but now it made the hole in Henry’s life that much larger — like standing on one side of a canyon, yelling, and always waiting for the echo that never came.”
Repeatedly, the themes of loneliness and imperfection are overemphasized. I say this as a person who primarily reads and writes within these themes, but I tend to prefer more straightforward, less flowery prose, especially when it comes to an internal monologue. That’s not to disparage anyone who likes a swell of Wordsworth proportions, but I don’t think I would have issues with the writing style overall if the similes and metaphors had not been so extravagant. However, I understand that trying to describe the grandest feelings is endless, imperfect work.
But here’s the thing — I loved the story, I really did. Five days is all it took for me to read the nearly 300 pages, with most of the reading occurring over two. It’s impossible not to empathize with these kids, and there’s genuine suspense to the narrative. I wanted to see how the past informed the present, and of course, how it all ended. Because of that, Hotel succeeds.
And though I may have had issues with some of the writing, let me assure you that there are gems as well:
“Henry was learning that time apart has a way of creating distance — more than the mountains and time zone separating them. Real distance, the kind that makes you ache and stop wondering. Longing so bad that it begins to hurt to care so much.”
I’ll be interested to see what Jamie Ford does next.
Book # 13/52
Photo by me, the signed first edition my mother bought me for Christmas. Thanks, Mom!
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.
This review also appeared on Pajiba on February 17, 2010.