Book Review: The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Personal Collection

Ford’s novel The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a mesmerizing tale of love, loyalty and friendship from a time in the United States that most wish to forget.

Henry Lee is a Chinese-American living in Seattle, who, in 1986 is grieving the loss of his wife to cancer. When Henry learns that the belongings of 40 Japanese families who were sent to the internment camps during World War II are discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the novel slips back to 1942. He remembers the friendship he forged with a Japanese American girl, Keiko Okabe. Henry and Keiko were able to see past the prejudices of their ancestors, as they struggled to fit in-in a community that forbid their love and as the only Asians in their all white prep school. When the Okabe family is sent to the internment camps, Henry is forced by circumstances to make sacrifices for love, loyalty and country.

The layout of the story is typical of historical fiction as it shifts between the 1940s and 1986. The simplicity of Henry’s narration is what kept my attention throughout the story. Ford develops a cast of rich characters that I couldn’t help but come to care for. The novel is built upon the important relationships in Henry’s life- Not just Henry’s relationship with Keiko, but also his relationship with his father, his son and the relationship between his mother and father. These relationships are carefully explored and we are reminded that the damages of war are not just on the battlefields.

The story truly is bittersweet. Ford has a wonderful ability to show the best and worst of human relationships. The plight of Japanese Americans in the 40s has been largely ignored in literature and Jamie Ford’s debut novel brings to life the rich culture of the Seattle international district in the most tumultuous time in United States history. I fell in love with Ford’s characters and it made me want to dig through the history in the Panama Hotel basement myself. I definitely would recommend this book. Even two weeks after finishing it, I still find myself reflecting on it throughout the day. An evocative book that will really make you think, 5 stars!

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