Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford


This book has a very good title.  Henry, the protagonist, has had a life with happiness and disappointments, and much of the setting involves an old hotel in Seattle.  The title sums up many aspects of the story.


The setting is Chinatown and Japantown in Seattle during WWII, and there is some history to be learned here.  The problem with the book is explained in an interview with the author at the end, in which Ford explains his writing process.  He says that as he writes, he focusses on the ending, and that is the impression I got as I read.  Ford is trying so hard to move along his plot, that he has not allowed his characters to develop.  They are just implements to move the plot along.  They have been assigned certain traits and speak the lines assigned to them, but they are not complex or interesting.  Their interactions serve to move the plot in the direction Ford has determined, and they all turn out to be pretty dull puppets.  Even the plot is not well handled because there is a lot of action concerning the protagonist's proposed trip to China and that goes nowhere.  Similarly, there is supposed to be some friction between the main character, Henry, and his son, Marty, but there is nothing substantive to indicate the source of this problem.


 I think that Ford does not have an interest in his characters beyond their contribution to his plot.  He decided to write a book about star-crossed lovers set during WW II when the government was relocating Japanese Americans to internment camps.  He did some historical research, but research and a plot don't make a novel.  The book reads like a classroom project, and Ford needs more lessons in character development.  Or he needs more wisdom and insight about the human condition to move beyond stereotypes.


In brief, Henry is a Chinese American enrolled in an all-white school.  He has to work in the school cafeteria and there he meets Keiko, a Japanese American also at the school on a "scholarship."  Their friendship blossoms into romance, despite the opposition of Henry's father, for whom the Japanese atrocities in China are vivid memories. There is conflict between Henry and his father. Keiko and her family are relocated to an internment camp, the two school children lose touch, Henry marries Ethel, a Chinese American, they have a child, Marty, Ethel dies, and Henry's thoughts go back to his first girlfriend.  The setting recreates the international nature of Seattle before the war, and the jazz music popular at the time.  There are two characters of some interest: Sheldon, a black trombone player, and Mrs. Beatty who runs the school cafeteria.


An irritant to me are the "Reading Group Questions" at the back.   The writer and publisher are assuming too much about the quality of their book and too little about the intelligence of their readership.  On what basis was it decided that this book would be good material for a reading group?