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The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende.

August 7, 2015

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende. Atria Books, 336 pages.  Forthcoming, November 2015.

5 stars–FAVORITE

A vibrant, but realistic novel about aging by a popular Chilean American woman author.

Isabel Allende burst on the literary scene in the 1970s with books of magical realism like House of the Spirits. Since then she has continued to publish a variety of books, always good and often excellent.  Her writing is consistently delightful.  She typically provides rich assemblages of fascinating characters, each described in detail with brisk and energetic prose. Now as she herself is aging, she has made the process central to her newest novel. In this book she images how to make the final years of life fulfilling.

The story is set in a retirement village, one that is as perfect as Allende can create. People with varied needs all have a place and all sorts of special attention are available. In this idyllic setting, Allende introduces her typical range of residents, their families, and staff, many with back-stories of their own. At the center of the book is Alma, now in her eighties, who lives on her own in her private apartment. She is an intensely independent individual determined to continue as many of her favorite activities as possible, not out of a futile sense of normality, but because she cares about them. Often, she leaves the retirement center for days at a time for unexplained reasons. Irina, Alma’s secretary/assistant, and Seth, her grandson, set out to learn about her secretive absences, assuming she must be having an affair.

As a child, Alma had been sent by her Jewish parents to live with distant relatives in San Francisco as World War II approached.  Two young boys became her companions in her new home, and she would continue to love and be loved by them both the rest of her live. Nathan, the privileged son of the family, would be like a brother, always protecting her. She would later marry him and have his son. Ichimei was the son of the family’s Japanese gardener, and the person who brought sexuality and passion into her life. Although Alma and Ichi became separated when Japanese were evacuated during the war, the two later found ways to share their passion in secret. Alma’s Japanese lover was central to her life, but Alma herself is the core of the book.  I loved her, but some readers may find her too unconventional.

As the story progresses, Alma and the other residents share what continues to sustain and delight them. Allende has no silver bullet what we should do to be happy as we age. Instead she images a range of possibilities to explore: freedom from responsibilities to others, silence and solitude, time to play and to remember. Alma withdraws from the activities of her earlier life in order to look inward: “I’m discovering who I am without all my ornaments and accessories.”  Walking with a friend, Alma experiences unexpected joy. “They took short, shaky steps, leaning into one another and feeling the late autumn cold, dazed by the rush of stubborn memories that gripped them, memories of love, flooded by a mutual happiness.” Death is not something to be sought, but something that is acceptable.

I recently read and reviewed All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West, another book about an elderly woman. While I liked that book, I prefer Allende’s version of a similar story.  Unlike Sackville-West’s Lady Shane, Alma has always been an active participant in her own life and continues to find joy even as her body is declining.

The Japanese Lover is not the best of Allende’s books, in literary terms. The back-stories and cast of characters get overwhelming at times. But I am grateful to have such a positive, yet unsentimental account of aging.  I recommend it hardily to other readers.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Atria Books for providing me an electronic copy of this novel. It will be available in bookstores next year.

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