Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is my third book in a row that came highly recommended by other book bloggers. Maybe I’m getting "recommendation fatigue” because I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other two.
Many things about the book appealed to me. Since I was born in Asia, I appreciated the references to Chinese words and customs. The facts about Japanese American internment camps appealed to me because I like WWII history. I enjoyed the excellent writing about the complexities of relationships, particularly at a specific time in world history. Jamie Ford does a superb job of describing the clash between 1st and 2nd generation Chinese Americans, the conflicts between Japanese Americans and Caucasians, and even the animosity between the Japanese and the Chinese during that era.
Hotel is the story of a Chinese man, Henry Lee, who is trying to put his life back together after his wife’s death from cancer. It’s told in the present (1986) with flashbacks to forty years earlier. The flashbacks recount his painful relationship to his father and his budding friendship with a young Japanese girl named Keiko. To his son, Marty, Henry is a “man with no surprises in him”, but as the book progresses the reader discovers that there is much from Henry’s past that he has never shared. These slowly revealed secrets are what carry the book along.
My chief complaint against the book is its melancholy tone. I frequently put it down to recover from a sense of overwhelming gloom. One of its main themes is that all happiness ends up broken or marred. Yes, life is filled with the bitter and the sweet, but in Henry’s case the sweet moments are few. I made myself finish it (because it was overdue) and was glad it ended on a hopeful note.
Now I’m ready to move on to a book of my own choosing – preferably something lighthearted!
A sample of the good writing: Henry did his best to communicate without words. To give his son that smile, that knowing look of approval. He was certain Marty picked up every phrase of their wordless communication. After a lifetime of nods, frowns, and stoic smiles, they were both fluent in emotional shorthand. (p.84)