A fairy tale for adults

“The Japanese Lover” by Isabel Allende.
“The Japanese Lover” by Isabel Allende.

Isabel Allende is partial to strong women, courtly manners and leftist politics. In her latest novel, “The Japanese Lover,” she delivers all three in a stirring romance about a passionate love affair between a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland and a Japanese-American gardener.

The sweeping historical novel opens in Lark House, a progressive retirement community in the San Francisco Bay area with a “faint odor of disinfectant, old age, and – occasionally – marijuana,” and moves back and forth in time to introduce a geographically and culturally diverse set of characters.

Alma Belasco is the matriarch of a wealthy Jewish family in San Francisco who emigrated to the U.S. as a little girl when the Nazis invaded Poland. Ichimei Fukuda, is a Japanese-American whose immigrant father worked as a gardener for Alma’s uncle before the war and whose family was interned after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor..

Many passages are moving, especially those dealing with the hardships of aging. Alma discovers she needs “to find ways to avoid stairs or to guess the meaning of a sentence she hadn’t truly heard.” Ichimei, meanwhile, confronts the inevitable with equanimity.

“You are afraid our bodies will fail us, and of what you call the ugliness of age, even though you are more beautiful now than you were at 23,” he writes to Alma.

It’s easy to scoff at some of Allende’s conceits, including her tendency to make Ichimei and his parents preternaturally stoical and wise. She can also come across as a Pollyanna, writing, for example, that Lark House residents “were conclusive proof that age, despite all its limitations, does not stop one from having fun and taking part in the hubbub of life.” Yet she is a dazzling storyteller, with a wry, sometimes dark, wit and a great eye for society’s changing fashions. She may be writing a fairy tale for adults, but like the best of the genre, it’s almost irresistible.


“The Japanese Lover”

By Isabel Allende

Atria Books, 336 pages