Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford - Book Review

Henry Lee has a secret past. A recent widower and enigma to his son, Henry Lee’s 1942 history still haunts his 1986 self. He’s done a good job keeping his feelings buried for forty-four years, but a discovery at Seattle’s Panama Hotel brings a flood of regret and longing that will illustrate the very best historical fiction has to offer: assigning humanity to the scope of history.

Wearing an “I am Chinese” button, twelve-year-old Henry Lee leaves the comfort of his segregated Seattle neighborhood to attend a white upper-class school. Prejudice is a way of life in the 40’s and Henry’s little button is an important distinction since the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Still, Henry’s classmates make no distinction between a Chink and a Jap.

It’s Henry’s fast friendship with the only other minority, Keiko - an American born Japanese girl, that offers respite from his isolation. As if the school bullies weren’t enough, Keiko’s friendship is forbidden by Henry’s Chinese nationalistic father and soon the Japanese will be rounded into internment camps, leaving Henry to forever wonder about the girl he lost.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet started rough for me. I’m the sort of reader who inhabits the pages and if so much as one little disbelieving moment happens, I’m popped back into real life. This happened several times during the first few uneven chapters, but I labored onward due to an interest in historical fiction and moments where I thought the story might become something more. I’m glad I persevered.

Alternating between 1986 and 1942, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a character driven story offering glimpses of a shameful moment in American history. It must be stated outright: the plot is somewhat predictable, cliché even, but the sell is the well-formed and endearing characters. Ford’s rich characters encompass the breadth of humanity, showing us both the wickedness and compassion of man. It's also a period novel, with vivid examples of culture, music and nuances of the WWII era.

I can't think of a more appropriately titled novel. If you’re tempted to stop during those first few chapters, don’t. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet makes up for its bitter start with a sweet conclusion.

Here's the author, Jamie Ford, explaining the setting and inspiration for the novel.

Highly Recommended for historical fiction lovers, especially those with an interest in WWII and the cultural conflicts of that era. Great for book clubs!

Also posted on Library Thing
Thanks to Ballantine Books & Shelf Awareness for my advanced copy.
© 2007-2009


caite said...

I would agree that the plot is rather predicable but I do think it is all about the characters and I think the characters are good enough to bump this up to being quite a good book.

But then I did not have a problem with the beginning chapters... :-)


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