A Story of Political Heartache : A Review of The Japanese Lover
In the years following the 2016 presidential election people in the US are feeling scandalized for their political opinions. Sometimes we are quick to forget these feelings, of being outed and opposed, are universal. People all over the globe and in different periods of US history experience adversity due to politics. In this review I am showcasing a story teller, Isabel Allende, famous for confronting political adversity head on in her fiction writings.
The theme of political turmoil, which Allende employs in many of her novels, is personal. In a TED talk from 2007 about living out tales of passion, Allende commented, “Certain themes keep coming up: justice, loyalty, violence, death, political and social issues, freedom.” Allende’s own life was disrupted due to political chaos in her home country of Chile. Because of the realness and empathy with which Allende writes, her critically acclaimed novels are free to expose governments for the horrors they inflict on their citizens’ lives. The same themes, Allende noted in her TED talk, are a part of her eighteenth novel, The Japanese Lover.
The characters in Isabel Allende’s fiction novel The Japanese Lover are each victims of political controversy in their own countries. Despite the improbability of the characters ever knowing one another; each character meets the others after an unfortunate event caused by government conflict. Alma, the main protagonist of the book, spends a lifetime connecting to unlikely friends because she survived the war as a Polish Jew exile in San Francisco. Alma befriends Ichimei the summer before Pearl Habor; the same summer his family is sent to an internment camp in Topaz, NM. Alma also mentors a young Moldovian woman, Irina, who works as her live-in nurse after Irina flees her home country due to extreme poverty resulting from communism.
Allende, known for her complex love stories and overt political messages, exercises her literary strengths in The Japanese Lover. Allende’s eighteenth novel was not different in a way I hoped for. While Allende crafts a magical love story with alluring imagery from Japanese culture, the familiar elements of her love stories induced boredom in me. At the start of the novel I was magnetized to the forbidden love story between a young Polish Jew refugee and a young Japanese American internee. But with each turn of the page I craved a fresh take on relationships surviving extreme limitations like prison sentences, political exile, or family intervention.
After many years as a reader of Allende’s books, I suppose I find myself waiting for the novel which reveals her personal healing. I want Allende to write me a love story, between friends or siblings or lovers, where two connected characters refuse to let the pain of their past bar them from living. I want Allende and her characters to shed the fear of any government or political party setting the course of their lives.
I rate this novel as a borrow, not buy. The Japanese Lover hefts timeless thematic elements, well researched cultural references, and beautiful scenes of fiction. Allende stuns with her well crafted characters. Despite wanting a different ending, I plan to read Allende’s latest release In the Midst of Winter. Allende consistently delivers novels that arouse, torture, and trigger all our emotions. Even so I continue searching for that novel which shows me what it is like to weather a tumultuous political climate and forge lasting relationships. I think we all might want a story about that.
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Discussion Questions for The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Allende writes a surprising scene in the chapter titled, The Prisoners. The Japanese American internees organize a Fourth of July camp event to display their patriotism. The events in the novel are not far from the truth. During a time of political exile for this marginalized community they chose to come together to support their government. Is there a lesson in this choice we can apply today?
Families shape the way we relate to other people. Alma and Ichimei taught each other to love outside of the boundaries of their upbringing but only in their private time. Did they inflict unnecessary heartache on one another by holding fast to their family’s traditions of marriage rather than being married to one another?
Seth and Irina faced an enormous obstacle in their relationship. How did facing Irina’s past together kindle more passion for each other?