When a group of library science students at Dominican University recently discussed Jamie Ford’s The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, the reactions were split. Some of them liked the book, and some of them didn’t. Pretty typical, as far as I’m concerned, although it’s always interesting to see where the differences lie.
Ford’s story centers on the close relationship that develops between two young people, a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, who live in Seattle during the World War II years. As you might expect, they ultimately are separated when the girl and her family are taken to an internment camp. And also predictably, the boy never forgets her, even as he grows into adulthood and marries someone else.
The book is constructed of brief chapters, some set in the past and some taking place over 44 years later, in 1986. Nobody objected to the episodic style, which tends to keep the reader quickly flipping the pages, or to the jumps back and forth in time, which frequently can affect the momentum of a story, but didn’t seem to hurt in this case.
The group liked the historical aspects of the book, which they found illuminating, as well as the recurring theme of jazz music that flows through the story (the youngsters have an older black friend, a musician who introduces them to cool melodies that lift their spirits). What they didn’t like (some of them, anyway) was the fact that the female characters weren’t fully developed. Another problem was the long suffering male protagonist, Henry, who some typed as a “martyr”. They wanted him to take action, rather than just pondering his options and not doing anything.
There are obvious parallels in the story between the relationship of Henry and his stern father and later, the relationship of Henry and his son, Marty, who is a more independent type. Marty and his Caucasian girlfriend, Samantha, eventually play a big part in resolving the mystery of what happened to Keiko, Henry’s childhood sweetheart. And that led to another difference of opinion in the book group — was the ending satisfying or just plain sappy?
The author has commented that there are some autobiographical aspects to his novel, and yet he worked hard to keep it from becoming too sentimental. Some group members felt he didn’t quite succeed — I guess they were hoping for a different kind of story, something with harder edges.
One of the things that most appealed to me about the book was learning how difficult it was for Chinese Americans during World War II — they were treated with the same prejudice as Japanese Americans, who of course were considered by many to be the enemy, even though they were loyal to the United States. Henry is made by his father to wear a button reading “I Am Chinese,” theoretically to help him avoid ill treatment at school — but of course, it doesn’t work. The scenes of bullying are disturbing, and yet extremely relevant, as we consider how much of this deplorable behavior continues to exist in our present-day world.
The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a first novel, and as such, contains some weak spots. But it’s a good book for a discussion, and it will be interesting to see how Jamie Ford develops as a writer with whatever he decides to tackle next.