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Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (5/5)

4 Aug

I had heard this book was cute. You don’t get a lot of cute historical fiction so I was curious. I’d bought a second-hand copy really cheaply a few years ago and I recently convinced my book club to read this title so I was excited. And yes, I cried at the end. (I’ve had a bad habit of that lately.)

Cover image via

Cover image via

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Summary from Goodreads:

In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship – and innocent love – that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice – words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Cute was the right description for this book. Henry and Keiko are adorable and I loved them both. They’re so naive to what’s going on around them and the ‘adult troubles’ that are shaping their lives. Their innocence makes the story more lovable and it becomes their story and not as much of a story about the Japanese internment. I liked how the book was more about the characters.

Nothing felt forced in this book (okay, one thing at the end I’ll get to). The characters were very consistent and seemed to grow in their own way in time. Keiko’s family was lovely and Henry’s father was terrible. And they stayed that way which I liked. It helped me focus on Henry’s character development and change.

It was hard not to love Henry. He’s a very modern character stuck in the 1940s. He didn’t see race or color and he worked hard to get what he wanted. He didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and knew how to stand up for himself. More than anything, he was in love and a person in love is hard to dislike. His feelings for Keiko were so pure and well-intentioned that even her parents could see it in five minutes. I loved that. He was such a sweet character.

Most people have a memory of a time their parents didn’t take them seriously. This book shows that time for Henry and it was easy to sympathise with him. He was becoming a man and had to find a way to be looked at like a man. I’m glad that Keiko could be a part of that story. She seemed a bit more mature and had a better relationship with her parents, which helped her seem older than she was. It was hard to remember these characters were in middle school!

Jamie Ford Image via the author's website

Jamie Ford
Image via the author’s website

I loved Henry visiting the camps. It was funny to me that the white guards couldn’t tell he was Japanese yet as soon as the inhabitants saw him, they knew he was Chinese but didn’t say a word. He wasn’t to blame for them being there. He was another American swept up in the war. He was so happy to see Keiko that he didn’t care that she was a prisoner in the camps. He didn’t care that they couldn’t pick a date to see each other again. He was just so happy to be with her for a little while that it broke my heart.

There was one part that bothered me. A woman from my book club brought up that there was a computer reference in the 1980s section that bothered her and it bothered me too, when I got to it. Marty looks up a person on the computer. In the mid 80s. With what internet did he do this? It sticks out a lot and Ford tries to explain it away that he called some people, too, but I didn’t buy it. It was a big miss in the editing process and the book’s ending really hinged on that research so it made the end feel forced. Other than that, I have no complaints.


Henry’s story is one of love. Mainly, in the ways he loved Keiko. But also in the way he loved his late wife, Ethel. I struggled with how I felt about Ethel for a lot of the book, but I think Henry loved her as much as a man can love his wife. Yes, he loved Keiko, too, but I don’t think that diminished how he felt about Ethel. He also loved Marty and will learn to love Samantha. Human’s have an amazing capacity to love and Henry is a great example of that.

Writer’s Takeaway: Ford took what he knew, his family and his home, and made a great story out of it. The old adage of ‘write what you know’ has some merit to it. Ford didn’t have a lost sweetheart in the 40s, but he did have Chinese relatives in that time and lived in Seattle. Sometimes, that’s enough. The details he added to Seattle made the book stand out to me. There were things about the sea that I wouldn’t have thought of living in Michigan. His bits about Chinese culture and being Chinese-American were great and helped develop Henry as a character. I thought he did a good job of using himself in his book without inserting himself into the lead role.

Cute, enjoyable, fast-paced, and an overall great book. Five out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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