Ever since Isabel Allende became a global phenomenon with “The House of the Spirits” in 1985, the Chilean-born author — who makes her home in Northern California — has been wildly popular. Last year, Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the cherry on top of a career that includes 21 books that have sold 65 million copies worldwide as well as widespread recognition as the queen of magical realism.
When she is at her strongest, Allende’s books feel like ornate fairy tales, velvety and otherworldly and sly, as full of mystery as history. But little of that is present in her new novel, “The Japanese Lover,” which tells the story of Alma Belasco, a Polish-born Jewish woman in the San Francisco Bay Area who has a doomed lifelong affair with (yes) a Japanese lover, spanning the 1930s to the present. Instead, “The Japanese Lover” is a sweeping history told at such a distance that it’s like reading a book through the wrong end of a telescope.
Rules are, of course, made to be broken; and in her impressive writing career of more than 30 years, Allende has proved herself to be adept at expositional writing, at times using it effectively in service to her stories. But “The Japanese Lover” is 336 pages of arms-length description and reportage, punctuated only occasionally by an actual scene of action or a few lines of stiff dialogue.
That’s not to say nothing happens in “The Japanese Lover.” In fact, it is probably the opposite problem that pushed Allende to write in such shorthand: Many of the major crises of the 20th century have been crammed into these pages.
Through her tragedy-prone cast of characters, Allende covers the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Japanese internment camps, sex slavery, child pornography, Mexican back-alley abortions, assisted suicide, amnesia and AIDS. She dispatches the Holocaust in a few pages, Japanese Oomoto religion in a few more, and life in communist Moldova in mere paragraphs — with only as much gusto as a seventh-grade history report.
We first meet Alma in 2015, after she moves into the Lark House — a quirky retirement home whose aging residents walk around smoking weed and spend their free time protesting outside municipal buildings. Irina Bazili, a young Lark House employee with a mysterious past, tasks herself with digging up Alma’s own mysterious past, along with the assistance of Alma’s grandson Seth. The story of Alma’s affair with Ichimei Fukuda is slowly told through flashbacks and letters; at the same time, Seth and Irina’s love begins to grow.
Somewhere in the middle we are introduced to the back stories of a range of minor characters, most of whom have suffered terribly (See: AIDS, sexual slavery, child pornography, amnesia) but who have managed to conduct transcendent, star-crossed love affairs of their own.
All of this is interesting, but none of it, sadly, comes to life. In part this is the fault of her characters, a virtuously bland lot who fall flat on the pages. When it comes to romantic protagonist Ichimei, for example, no rapturous descriptor goes unused: He is “a wonderful man, a sage, a saint, a pure soul, a delicate, considerate lover,” and Alma admires “his unshakeable inner strength, his lack of vanity, his tenderness and delicacy, his serene expression.” And yet we never see Ichimei do much of anything, let alone anything deserving of such swooning (nor, for that matter, do we see his magical powers, even though we’re also informed that he’s a “fakir” who can “control his pulse rate and his temperature.”)
The best parts of “The Japanese Lover” involve a solitary stray spirit and the shuffling seniors of the Lark House, people who are half-ghosts themselves. Allende captures something poignant and real about the end of life, in characters who wake up thinking, “If nothing hurts, that means I woke up dead.” Here we find her eye for rich, witty detail: The French nonagenarian Lothario with a penis pump and a meticulous list of the 67 women he’d loved. And she demonstrates her knack for poignant observation: “They advanced step by step towards the end, some more quickly than others, and lost everything along the way, for we cannot take anything with us to the other side of death.”
But these passages are fleeting and too few; “The Japanese Lover” is a humorless and earthbound disappointment.
The Japanese Lover
By Isabel Allende
Atria Books: 336 pp., $28
Brown is the author of the novel “This Is Where We Live.”