Irina, a troubled young woman from Eastern Europe, is trying to escape her former life by juggling jobs as an aged care worker, dog washer, and waitress. At the home for ageing hippies in San Francisco where she works, she meets Alma, an elderly artistic lady who is also harbouring secrets about her past.
Alma’s beloved grandson Seth falls in love with Irina but what would his wealthy family think if he brought home this penniless European girl? And what are the dark secrets she is hiding?
Seth and Irina build a strong bond of friendship nevertheless. They’re bonded by their love of the ageing Alma and their quest to discover the secrets of her past. They try to find out who is sending Alma beautiful flowers and where she goes when she disappears in her tiny car. Convinced she has a secret lover and a dark family secret, they’re determined to find out.
Interweaving this narrative is the story of Alma’s past. When she arrives in the US during the Second World War, a Jewish refugee leaving her family behind in Poland, she lives with her relatives, the wealthy San Francisco family, the Belascos. They treat her as one of their own and she becomes part of the family. At their mansion on the cliff edge, Alma develops romantic feelings for the son of the Japanese gardener, Ichimei. But wartime soon arrives in the US too and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor the Japanese are treated as the enemy and interned in terrible conditions in desert camps. Alma must try to forget her feelings for Ichimei, but this is not something she can easily do.
The Japanese Lover is a sad but satisfying story of forbidden love, family secrets, friendship, growing old and resolving the past. It’s also a reminder of the strife wrought by war and its portrayal of the US treatment of American Japanese during World War 2 is a timely reminder of the humanity of refugees.
Isabel Allende is of course the beloved Chilean-American novelist who penned the unforgettable 1982 classic, The House of Spirits. She is famous for her use of magical realism in her novels and weaves just a little of this magic into the story of The Japanese Lover. Sweeping through time and across continents, this absorbing novel is one to pack in your bag this summer, for a great holiday read.