Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
On the surface, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an adorable love story. But at the same time, it covers some really important events in the history of the US and of the world, as well as several other prominent and more general themes.
The book tells the story of Henry, a Chinese American man. The book goes back and forth to tell Henry’s life story from two distinct points in time. The first is the 40s. World War Two is going on as well as a number of battles between China and Japan, which Henry’s father keeps an eye on from their home in Seattle. His father holds a strong animosity towards all things Japanese, as indeed the whole city does. Henry has to wear an “I am Chinese” button so that people don’t get confused and think of him as “the enemy.” Amid all of this turmoil and animosity, Henry meets and falls in love with Keiko, a Japanese girl who works with him in the kitchen of his predominantly white school.
The reader is taken back and forth between this story taking place in the 40s and the modern day. Well, it’s 1986, even though the book was published in 2009. I think it was mainly written this way because if it was 2009, Henry and all the other main characters would have been way too old to have this kind of story! Anyway, fast-forward to 1986, and Henry’s wife, Ethel, has recently passed away. One day, it is announced that a whole basement full of Japanese people’s possessions are being brought up from the basement of the Panama Hotel in town. And so the intrigue begins.
The two different time perspectives are woven beautifully to keep you guessing about what happened to Keiko and Henry throughout their lives. It’s revealed that Henry and Keiko really loved each other, and despite his father forbidding it, Henry really tried to help Keiko and their family, especially when they were sent away to an internment camp for Japanese citizens. But at the same time, we know that Henry married a lady called Ethel, so the reader is left to wonder how and when this happened, and what happened to Keiko. Not to mention the regret that Henry apparently feels over leaving her behind.
The father-son relationships in this book are very interesting. In some ways, you can really see Henry’s relationship with his father reflected in his relationship with his son, Marty. Henry had a hard time with his father when he was younger. His father, of course, only wanted the best for his son, but sometimes this resulted in some confusion and contradictions. For example, he wanted to much to send Henry to Canton to go to school, but he couldn’t because of the conflict there. But in the US, he sent Henry to an all-white school on a scholarship, where he was bullied and had to work in the kitchen, instead of sending him to a Chinese school. Another example was when he made Henry speak English at home, except that his parents couldn’t understand any English, so this made communication at home all but impossible.
Of course, after his difficulties with his father growing up, Henry wants only the best for his son Marty. Marty knows that his grandfather was very strict and traditional, and it seems like he assumes Henry is the same and is somewhat afraid of him. Again, there seems to be a lack of communication between father and son, even though in this case they speak the same language.
I really don’t want to include spoilers here, so I’m not going to tell you much more about what happened. But I will tell you that I really enjoyed this book, and I hope you do too.