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The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s latest masterpiece explores war, race relations, forbidden love and reconciliation.

japenese lover

Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits; Maya’s Notebook) presents a beautiful, complex story of love, sacrifice and redemption in The Japanese Lover.

In 1939, an eight-year-old Polish girl named Alma is sent from Poland as the Nazis advance, to live with her aunt and uncle in opulent circumstances in San Francisco. There she meets a Japanese boy her age, Ichimei, who will be her great love, and her older cousin Nathaniel, who will be her best friend. Alma’s story–and her convoluted relationships with Ichi and Nat–is revealed from a distance of many years, when a young Eastern European woman named Irina takes a job at the senior residence Alma has just moved into. Slowly, Irina wins the trust of the prickly elderly Alma, and the unsolicited devotion of Alma’s grandson Seth. These and other characters are wrought with tenderness, humor and nuance in Allende’s characteristic lyric style, as the story of Alma’s love unfolds in a narrative alternating between passionate old age and the passions of youth.

Allende ruminates over lifelong love, in its various forms and bound by destiny; the sacrifices love does and does not compel; and the ugly realities of war and racism–while Alma emigrates to flee war, Ichimei and his family are interned in the United States following Pearl Harbor, and Irina’s personal history is touched by trauma and displacement that is revealed only late in the book. This novel of fervent feeling, reflection and multiculturalism will please Allende’s many fans.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 gardenias.

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