I really wanted to like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I went into it thinking this would be a new favorite book, that I’d rave about it to my friends, and that I’d be Jamie Ford’s newest fan and stalker. I even moved it up in the TBR pile based on this guest post! Unfortunately, the book wasn’t really to my taste.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is about Henry Lee, a Chinese American. It is 1986, his wife has passed away six months ago, and one day while he’s out walking, he passes a local landmark, the Panama Hotel, where he sees a crowd and finds out that the new owner of the hotel has found over 30 suitcases and personal belongings left by Japanese families in the basement when they were interned in the 1940s. A parasol with koi fish painted on it reminds him of a Japanese American girl he knew in 1942, a girl that he loved very much.
The narration alternates between Henry in 1986 and Henry in 1942.
Henry in 1942 is 12 years old and going to an exlusive school. The kids tease and torment him, but he’s learned to deal with it. It’s at this point that he meets a Japanese American girl, Keiko, about his age at school, who he becomes good friends with. Not long into their friendship, anti-Japanese sentiment comes to the point of rounding all the Japanese up and sending them to internment camps.
Henry in 1986 is getting over his wife’s death and trying to deal with a son with whom he’s never been close. When the Panama Hotel finds the personal belongings that had been left by some Japanese families, Henry starts wondering what happened to Keiko and goes to the hotel to see if her family left some of their belongings there. When he finds what he’s looking for, he’s torn between looking for her and leaving well enough alone.
I liked the idea of the story, though I found the execution to be clunky. Take, for example, the author’s writing. I felt that the author overused italics, as if he didn’t have enough confidence in his own writing to get the point across. Yes, I know that I use italics AND ALL CAPS, but I think there’s a difference between formal (i.e., novels) and informal (i.e., blog posts) writing, and when I write stories, I don’t use italics or all caps. I’m not saying italics or all caps can’t be used, just that if they are, they should be used sparingly and appropriately. Here’s a few examples:
Since when did special become such a burden? A curse even. There was nothing special about scholarshipping at Ranier. Nothing at all. Then again, he was here looking for someone. May she was special.
This is all from one page:
They found a lot of old things in the basement. Things from the war years.
“I’m looking for something,” Henry said.
Henry took a bite out of an egg custard tart, set it down, and pushed his plate away. “If I find something worth sharing, I’ll let you know.” Who knows, I might even surprise you. Wait and see. Wait, and see.
Marty seemed unconvinced.
“Something bothering you? You’re the one who looks like he has something on his mind – aside from studying and grade.”
“He’ll deal with it in his own way, and in his own time,” Ethel had said, shortly after she learned she had cancer. “He’s your son, but he’s not a product of your childhood, it doesn’t have to be the same.”
I just found it distracting. Or better yet, I just found it distracting.
The other thing that didn’t ring true for me is that the author had Henry and Keiko falling in love within one year. They’re only 12 years old, though somewhere in that year they both had a birthday, so at best they’re 13 years old. I just don’t think that being 12 years old and knowing someone for one year, even in the circumstances of World War II, means they can fall in love. But could they be good friends who remember each other for the rest of their lives? Absolutely.
Henry even starts courting Keiko, noting that at his age, his father was bound for America all alone. But just because his father was a “man” at 13, doesn’t mean that Henry was a man who was ready to court a girl. I know that even today kids have sex at that young age, but it still doesn’t make them ready. I understand that Henry’s father was married at a young age, but you can’t compare different generations because times are different and children grow up in different circumstances. With what the author presented to me, I didn’t think Henry was of courting age. Even though I can believe that was something that happened at that time, it wasn’t something that I found to be “romantic”.
So while I’ve outlined why I didn’t like the book, I’m in the minority. This book has been hugely successful as it was already into its SIXTH printing on March 18, 2009, which the author reported via Twitter. Please go check out the other reviews I’ve listed below, ALL of whom had nothing but nice things to say about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Rating: 75 out of 100