At first glance, Isabel Allende’s newest novel, “The Japanese Lover,” has three things going for it. First, its title suggests secret trysts, and if we’re lucky, exotic lovemaking. Then, its lush cover leads us to wonder what kind of adventure the young beauty who’s shown will find in the distant mansion. And lastly, the storyteller is Allende, who’s one of the best weavers of romantic tales. Unfortunately, this book does not deliver on what it promises.
It is essentially a jumble of twentieth century stories—a girl sent to America to escape the Nazi threat; a Japanese family rounded up and sent to a concentration camp with horrid conditions; a vulnerable, young Eastern European woman horribly exploited when she seeks a better life in America; the AIDS epidemic claiming victims; a brother lost in battle during World War II. The book, too, is cluttered with characters. Each person is given a backstory and often people in that backstory have histories of their own.
The story circles around Alma Belasco, an elderly woman living in Lark House, a senior residence on the coast of California filled with colorful, aging characters. As a girl, Alma had left her family in Nazi-threatened Poland in the 1930s for safety in the San Francisco home of a wealthy uncle, aunt and two cousins. At Lark House, Alma is cared for by a young Eastern European immigrant, Irina Bazili, who had left her war-torn country in the 1980s. Irina is befriended by Alma’s grandson Seth, the only relative who visits Alma.
Wait a minute! you say. What about the Japanese lover? Oh, yes. During Alma’s privileged youth in her California relatives’ home, the Japanese gardener had a son, Ichimei, with whom Alma shared a childhood of play and then a brief physical relationship when she was 22. The conventions of the day, or more specifically the prejudices of the time, made any type of relationship between the two impossible. Allende teases us throughout—have the two maintained contact in the years that followed?
There are men in Alma’s life however. Lenny, a friend from the past who moves into Lark House has a connection with Alma that Allende surprises us with in the end. Her cousin, Nathaniel, was her closest childhood friend and their devotion to each other has lasted a lifetime. But with all that Allende does to elaborate on the paths of her characters, none of them are deeply drawn, making it hard to care about them. My best advice—don’t judge this book by its cover.