57 pages 1 hour read

Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


The Japanese Lover is Isabel Allende’s 18th novel. Like most of Allende’s work, it falls under the genres of magical realism and historical fiction. The novel was originally published in 2015, the year after Allende was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition to the overarching focus on romance and love, the novel addresses issues relating to World War II (WWII), Japanese American incarceration during the 1940s, racism, homophobia, and the struggles of aging and dependence. As a work of magical realism, there are many elements of the text that depart from realism, such as the inclusion of spirits and forces beyond human understanding, but the work is predominantly a historical fiction set in the mid-20th century. Allende is a best-selling author, and The Japanese Lover was highly anticipated. In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, prominent awards Allende has won include the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, the Chilean National Prize for Literature, the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction, and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

This guide uses the Atria Books edition, published in 2015 and translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.

Content Warning: This novel contains depictions or discussions of racism, anti-gay bias, sexual assault, child abuse, child sexual abuse, warfare, suicide, medical aid in dying, genocide, and alcohol abuse.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with Irina Bazili, a Moldovan immigrant, arriving at Lark House, a retirement community designed for low-income elderly people. Irina is hired to care for residents on the second and third levels of the home, which house people who require constant supervision and care. After a resident nicknamed Frenchie becomes infatuated with Irina, he leaves her his inheritance, causing issues with his family. Irina develops a good reputation by rejecting Frenchie’s money, which brings her to the attention of Alma Belasco, another resident. Irina then becomes Alma’s personal assistant in addition to her job at Lark House and a side job washing dogs.

Irina discovers that Alma is a strong woman with a mysterious past, and she sets out to uncover the details of Alma’s life with Alma’s grandson, Seth, who quickly falls in love with Irina. The two suspect that Alma is seeing a lover periodically, and they hope to uncover the lover’s identity along with Alma’s life story. Alma explains how she came to San Francisco as a young girl to live with her aunt and uncle, Lillian and Isaac Belasco, to avoid the Nazi invasion of Poland, which claimed the lives of her parents. Isaac is a wealthy man who runs multiple charity organizations, and Alma meets his children, Martha, Sarah, and Nathaniel. Nathaniel quickly becomes Alma’s closest friend and confidant. At their home, Sea Cliff, Alma also befriends the son of Isaac’s gardener, Ichimei “Ichi” Fukuda.

Ichimei’s father, Takao, immigrated to America from Japan to pursue religious and cultural freedom, but he quickly realized that America was not hospitable to Asian Americans. In the 1940s, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and moved to heavily guarded prison camps. Ichi and the Fukuda family live at Topaz, a concentration camp in Arizona, throughout the war, which traumatizes them.

Alma does not see Ichimei again for some time. She goes to Boston to study art while Nathaniel is attending law school in the same city. Alma and Nathaniel are distant, and Alma remains in Boston after Nathaniel graduates. On Alma’s graduation day, she meets her brother, Samuel Mendel, who she thought had died in WWII as a pilot in the British military. Samuel survived, fought in the French Resistance, and joined Mossad in the newly formed state of Israel. When Alma returns home, she pursues art and meets Ichimei again.

Alma and Ichimei begin an affair in 1955 which ends when Alma becomes pregnant. Nathaniel brings Alma to Mexico for an abortion, but they decide against it at the last minute, getting married instead. After her marriage, Alma ceases contact with Ichimei for seven years. When Isaac Belasco dies, Alma sees Ichimei again. He is now married to a Japanese American woman named Delphine. Alma pursues more contact with Ichimei, and they begin an affair that lasts until the end of their lives.

Though Alma and Nathaniel are married, they have a largely passionless marriage, only having sex when they are drunk. Their relationship is more like siblings, though they do have one son, Larry. When Nathaniel becomes ill with AIDS, he reveals to Alma that he is gay and that he has a long-term lover named Lenny Beal. Alma invites Lenny to help care for Nathaniel until his death. After that, Alma and Lenny do not see each other again for 30 years. From Nathaniel’s death until 2010, Alma lives her life independently, traveling and creating art and designs at a workshop in San Francisco. All the while, Alma continues to see and correspond with Ichimei, maintaining their love affair until Ichimei’s death in 2010.

At Lark House, as this story is being uncovered, Irina and Seth grow closer together, during which Irina reveals that she was sexually abused as a child and that the abuse was filmed and spread on the Internet. As a result, Irina is uncomfortable with intimacy. When Alma dies, she leaves Irina her collection of Ichimei’s letters. Irina is inspired, recovering from her trauma and kissing Seth. After Alma’s death, Seth and Irina discover that Ichimei died in 2010, and Alma has been reliving her memories with him while they believed that she was still seeing him and receiving letters from him. Irina sees Ichimei at Alma’s side when she dies. Seth believes that she hallucinated it, but Irina believes that Alma’s love for Ichimei manifested his spirit.