Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"E" is for...

Ethel from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

Confession--I read this intending to post for "H" but I can't get one character, Ethel, out of my head. In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, two stories run parallel to each other--in 1942 young Henry Chen falling in love with Keiko, a Japanese girl at his school; in 1986 older Henry Chen dealing with the loss of his wife, his son growing up, and a fascinating discovery at a boarded-up hotel. Yet for me it was a secondary character, Henry's departed wife Edith, who made the biggest impact.

This book has been making the blog tour rounds recently, so it's likely you may have already read bit about the plot and the main characters, Henry and Keiko. The two meet at school where they are both on "scholarship"--that is, they help in the cafeteria in exchange for free tuition. Henry is Chinese and the son of a man wholeheartedly proud of his Chinese heritage--so proud that he identifies the Japanese as the enemy long before Pearl Harbor because of their attacks on his homeland. Keiko is Japanese and the daughter of parents who see themselves as American first, yet are herded off to internment camps as the US becomes more deeply embroiled in WWII.

As I said, however, it's Ethel that fascinates me. Her presence in the story gives it its realism. Things don't always work out neatly in life, and it is her presence in Henry's past that lets us know that the story will have bittersweet ends. It's Henry's complicated grief over her death that gives the 1986 chapters emotional viability. At the same time, she's barely a shadow for most of the book--a name mentioned with a quiet reverence, but not the intrigue with which Keiko is recalled. Toward the last of the book's 1940s chapters, we see her in person, and realize that she is both catalyst to Henry's loss of Keiko and comfort when Henry is left alone.

Because the love and marriage of Henry and Ethel has an overtone of manipulation and device by Henry's father, I can't help but wonder at what Ethel's side of the story is. Obviously, we never know--she was clearly a devoted wife and mother, and it is only through her death that Henry can return to his youth and explore his relationship with Keiko. Does Ethel know that she was perhaps second-best? That her husband remembered with such intensity the Japanese girl of his youth? It's a complication that brings out a richer texture to the story to never know Ethel's thoughts.

I had perhaps only one complaint about the book, and that was the fact that Henry and Keiko were only twelve when they meet one another. This fell a little flat for me--I was twelve once, I know twelve-year-olds, and their emotions are not this passionately developped. Perhaps I'm turning into an old fogey, but I see twelve as barely emerging from childhood, not old enough to sustain the emotionally intense relationship Keiko and Henry share. Ford has said that he chose young ages to imbue the relationship with innocence, which I respect, but for me it took things in the other direction too far. Perhaps another reason that Ethel resonated with me--her relationship with Henry felt more realistic to me, as they were teenagers dating rather than kids playing in the street together in my mind.

An enjoyable book, and a page-turner as you just have to find out what happens to Henry and Keiko and what secrets are hidden in the basement of the Panama Hotel. It didn't have the lyrical, poetic quality I generally enjoy in books--the writing style is quite straightforward. Still, a pleasant afternoon or two--with a cup of the green tea Henry favors by your side.
PS (later addition) I read a few more reviews of the book that also mentioned the ages as a problem in terms of accuracy--that kids that young wouldn't have been allowed boyfriends or girlfriends, wouldn't have run about on their own, and wouldn't have snuck into jazz clubs and met secretly as Henry and Keiko did. Interesting point--but I wonder. Kids always do, and have always done, what they're not supposed to do. And Henry seems to have a pretty good idea that his actions put him on thin ice. Does this bother you from an accuracy standpoint, or do you figure that kids will be kids and will stretch the limits regardless of the time period?


Cat said...

A lovely review, Rowenna. This book does seem to be appearing all over the place but I enjoyed your different insights. Sometimes a certain character does take hold of you so I'm glad you chose her for the letter E.

Kathleen Wall said...

Yes, I've seen this book mentioned several places. The title along captures your attention.

That's so interesting to me that the character whose side you don't hear captivated you so much. Do you think it would have been a more enjoyable reading experience for you if the author had given you her side too, or are you glad that you are left to imagine it yourself?

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Cat and Kathleen! I think I found her so interesting because she was so shadowy--I enjoyed filling in the blanks of her life.

Marg said...

I read this book not too long ago and really enjoyed it. I am hoping to get Jamie Ford to guest post for us at Historical Tapestry.

One thing though. I thought her name was Esther though. I might have to borrow the book from the library again to check! LOL! I am sure you are right.

Rowenna said...

Haha Marg--we're both off--it was Ethel. I think I got her confused with my great-aunt Edith. LOL, editing post now so I don't look like a total doofus!

Marg said...

LOL! I actually wrote Ethel in my review. I didn't go and check though when I left my comment.