Chilean-American author Isabel Allende’s novel The Japanese Lover
(2015) spans decades and continents, focusing on Alma Belasco, whose parents send her from war-torn 1939 Poland to the safety of San Francisco. There, she falls in love with Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet son of the family gardener—until they are pulled apart by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent imprisonment of Ichimei and his family. In the present day, Alma is an old woman living at the Lark House nursing home, where she forms a bond with care worker Irina Bazili. Exploring themes of identity, abandonment, redemption, and fate, The Japanese Lover
received overwhelmingly positive reviews and became another acclaimed installment in Allende’s literary body of work.The Japanese Lover
begins by introducing us to Irina Bazili, a care worker at Lark House. Having been on her own since she was fifteen, she was hired despite the hesitations of Hans Voigt, the community director. Lark House is an affordable and diverse community, and Irina is employed to look after residents who need more assistance but are not on the verge of death. She is close with head cleaner Lupita Farias, and retired Dr. Catherine Hope, a paraplegic and the youngest resident. She’s intrigued by the aloof and regal Alma Belasco. Irina is nearly fired when an elderly patient, Jacques Devine, dies after flirting extensively with her. Despite her rebuffing him politely, he leaves her all his money in his will. Irina refuses to accept the money and is accepted back into Hans’ good graces. However, other people wonder if she’s too good to be true. Alma becomes intrigued by Irina after this incident and asks her to be her secretary. Although Alma is aloof at first, they soon develop a comfortable relationship. Alma runs a silk-screening business with her favorite grandson, Seth. Irina soon becomes close with Seth, and Alma mentors Irina in culture, hoping they’ll be a match.
One day, Irina discovers a photo of a Japanese man in Alma’s room. Alma tells her his name, Ichimei Fukuda, and that he painted the piece she has on her wall. Irina learns from Seth that Alma frequently disappears from Lark House, returning happier. He tells her that Alma’s personality changed a few years back, leading her to give her wealth to her son Larry and move into Lark House. Alma keeps many letters from Ichimei, and eventually tells Irina and Seth the story of how she met Ichimei when she was sent abroad from Poland to live with her aunt and uncle in San Francisco. There, she met Ichimei, who was the son of the family gardener. The story jumps back and forth from the present day to the history of both the Belasco and Fukuda families. Ichimei and Alma grew closer until Pearl Harbor happened and Ichimei and his family were sent to internment camps. He asked a distraught Alma to look after his cat before he went. Times were hard for Ichimei and his family, but they remained a strong family unit, and he wrote frequently to Alma.
As Irina and Alma grow closer, flashbacks reveal Irina’s traumatic childhood in Moldova. The story of Alma and Ichimei’s relationship continues to unfold in letters, as Ichimei and his family are eventually released from the camps and try to integrate back into society, while Alma graduates secondary school and resists her aunt’s efforts to find her a husband. Alma and Ichimei have frequent secret meetings.
In the present day, Alma befriends a new arrival at Lark House, Lenny Beal, whom she apparently knew previously. As time goes on, Alma grows frailer and suffers a heart attack. Irina finds letters between Alma and Ichimei where they discuss their aging and Ichimei’s zen attitude towards the end of life. Alma relates to Irina that she did marry a childhood friend, Nathaniel, whom she and Ichimei were both close to, although she wonders if it was fair to him since she was always in love with Ichimei.
Irina’s time at Lark House is threatened when an FBI agent comes to the home, wanting to talk to her about a crime that was committed against her in the past. She’s told she’s entitled to compensation, but Irina just wants her past to go away. She confesses to Seth about her abusive, dangerous stepfather, and he promises to protect her.
As Alma gets older, Seth wants to know more about his grandmother’s life. She agrees to tell him and Irina the full story of her relationship with Ichimei, which persisted for decades although they never married. She became pregnant by Ichimei at one point but lost the child at five months. Nathaniel grieved the child’s death, never knowing that it wasn’t his. As Alma’s life reaches its end, she receives a visit from a Japanese man, whom Irina assumes is Ichimei. She gives Alma some privacy and returns later in the night to discover that Alma has passed away. Irina tells Seth what she saw, and Seth tells her that Ichimei passed away in 2005. Irina swears she saw him, but he insists it was her eyes playing tricks on her. They mourn Alma, and the book ends with one more letter between the lovers whose passion spanned decades.
Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American author and activist, best known for her magical realism
-influenced novels, which are often based on her personal experiences and the political environment of Latin America. She is the world’s most widely known Spanish-language author. A second cousin of former Chilean President Salvador Allende, she is known for being politically active and vocal about her country’s affairs. Having released fifteen major works of fiction and four memoirs over her thirty-five-year writing career, she became an American citizen in 1993. Highly decorated, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004, received Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2010, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.