Book Review: Four Poignant Stars to The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

I’ve had quite mixed thoughts on this one. Before picking up The Japanese Lover I had only ever read one other book by Isabel Allende, years ago. But The House of the Spirits had left such an impression on me that I think I set my expectations absurdly high for my next foray into Allende’s body of work. Considering the two novels were written decades apart, “bookending” Allende’s career, if you will, it’s hardly a shock that they’re so very different.

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So while my instinct during much of my reading experience was to give The Japanese Lover only three stars, after finishing the book I’ve decided to raise that to four. Much of what I loved about Allende’s first novel is absent here (or nearly absent, in the case of magical realism), but The Japanese Lover does explore dimensions of the human experience not frequently dealt with in literature.

The Japanese Lover begins with the arrival of Irina Basili, a young woman originally hailing from Moldova, to Lark House, a San Francisco nursing home where she has been hired as an employee. Irina soon meets a proud and aristocratic resident named Alma Belasco, and the two women develop a close intergenerational friendship. But Alma is intensely private, and before long Irina and Alma’s grandson allow their curiosity to get the better of them by investigating her past. When they become aware of a longtime lover, the novel splits into two narratives taking place in different settings: one in present-day Lark House, and the other kicking off in 1939 Poland as a young Alma Mendel departs for the United States.

The novel follows Alma throughout the rest of her life until her residence at Lark House. It also juggles Irina’s present-day experiences, as well as the interspersed narratives of many additional characters. The Japanese Lover has a wide scope: too wide, perhaps, for this 321-page novel. I am reminded of the time I saw Les Misérables, one of my least favorite musicals, on stage. The music was beautiful, and I could tell that the Victor Hugo novel the play is based on must be pretty great, but the scant two-hour running time meant that the character development consisted of a character walking onstage for the first time, singing an expository ballad, and promptly dying. The Japanese Lover is not nearly so egregious, but there were moments when I wanted the camera to zoom in on a character and disregard all the historical racket around her.

My other grievance is the pacing. Allende had her work cut out for her in splicing so many narratives together, and for the most part she is successful. However, toward the middle I felt my attention begin to flag, and at the three quarters mark I felt as though the story were only just getting started. I could have read another fifty pages after the novel ended.

Of course, that speaks to one of the novel’s great strengths: its ability to immerse the reader in its universe. The Japanese Lover is richly populated, and I was surprised to notice that almost every character is likable in their own way. But this doesn’t make the story boring, because each character, particularly the chief protagonist, is flawed, and there are sufficient opportunities for conflict. Some truly tragic, even despicable events befall the characters, but their resilience and love for one another wins out. I come away feeling refreshingly positive about the world, despite the unconscionable events the novel covers.

What I especially appreciate about The Japanese Lover is its focus on human mortality. While I remember The House of the Spirits being intensely passionate in a very youthful way, The Japanese Lover is about a lifetime’s worth of steadfast, slow-burning love, both romantic and otherwise.

In Lark House, residents regularly contemplate their imminent deaths, and life’s ephemeral nature becomes painfully apparent. Discussions of assisted suicide are commonplace, and there’s even a conversation about the measured manner in which elderly people have sex. This is a poignant, ultimately romantic novel concerned with the power of memory and the impermanence of everything but love.

With that being said, the titular character and his relationship to the protagonist do not prove as interesting as other elements of the novel. Personally, I found Alma’s relationship with her cousin-husband Nathaniel much more absorbing. Perhaps this is because new dimensions of their marriage continue to be revealed until the very end, while much of the development of Alma’s relationship with Ichimei takes place in the first half. This is another example of faulty pacing, but it ultimately wasn’t dire enough for me to lose interest.

The Japanese Lover is not a page turner, and its multiple narratives occasionally feel disjointed. But this seems appropriate for a novel of faded memory, a novel about the whole of a person’s life, from its initial ascent to its inevitable decline. In one early scene set during Alma’s youth, Takao Fukuda, the father of her eventual lover, shows her a cherry tree in full spring bloom.
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“He told her that this moment was beautiful, but that it would only last a few days before the blooms fell like rain to the ground; much better was the memory of the cherry tree in bloom, because that would last all year, until the following spring.” 

Being only twenty-four myself, I find this notion achingly sad, and part of me hopes that it isn’t true. But that’s why I enjoyed The Japanese Lover: because it forces the reader to get acquainted with disquieting truths. The fact that Isabel Allende must have been around seventy-five when she wrote this is not surprising. At its core, The Japanese Lover contains a wisdom you don’t encounter in more energetic, youthful novels.