This review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford was originally posted to Goodreads on June 26, 2012.
When I first sat down to read this book, I only intended to read a single chapter before bed. I thought I would have no trouble putting it down as it was outside my usual realm of reading material. Boy was I mistaken.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a WWII era Historical novel about the injustices visited upon Japanese Americans after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which peaked with the internment camps. But it is so much more than that as well. It is also a bitter-sweet love story, a tale of fathers and sons, a story of healing after losing a loved one to cancer, and a coming-of-age story. Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe are unforgettable characters; two teenagers caught inexorably in world events who bond through being outsiders, and through a love of Seattle jazz. The character of Ethel Lee is almost non-existent, a sort of literary ghost who haunts each chapter. Each other supporting character, from Sheldon the jazz sax-player who looks out for them to Mrs. Beatty the taciturn but kind-hearted school lunch-lady, brings something to the tale, often a surprising something. If anything negative could be said about Jamie Ford’s characters, it is only that perhaps his antagonists are a bit one-sided. They are little more than bigoted bullies, without the depth and broadness of emotion and experience exhibited by the protagonists. The exception is Henry’s father, who is far more fully developed.
The story itself is split in two, taking place in 1942 and in 1986. Each part is complete without the other, and yet they are both so much richer and more vibrant when combined. I would certainly highly recommend this book to anyone, particularly fans of WWII historical fiction. It is a powerful story, full of anguish punctuated by brief periods of joy, and culminating in the bitter-sweet happiness of the possibility of a second chance.