From internationally bestselling author Isabel Allende comes an exquisitely crafted, multigenerational love story. In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis and the world goes to war, young Alma Belasco's parents send her overseas to live with an aunt and uncle in their opulent San Francisco mansion. There she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family's Japanese gardener, and between them a tender love blossoms, but following Pearl Harbor the two are cruelly pulled apart. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love they are forever forced to hide from the world. Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to reconcile her own troubled past, meets the older woman and her grandson, Seth, at Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, and learn about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
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Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is the author of a number of bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Paula, and My Invented Country. Her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages and have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. She lives in California. www.isabelallende.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Japanese Lover
TH E POLISH GIRL
To satisfy Irina and Seth’s curiosity, Alma began by telling them, with the lucidity that preserves crucial moments for us, of the first time she saw Ichimei Fukuda. She met him in the splendid garden at the Sea Cliff mansion in spring 1939. In those days she was a girl with less appetite than a canary, who went around silent by day and tearful by night, hiding in the depths of the three-mirrored wardrobe in the bedroom her aunt and uncle had prepared for her. The room was a symphony in blue: the drapes were blue, and so too the curtains around the four-poster bed, the Flemish carpet, the birds on the wallpaper, and the Renoir reproductions in their gilt frames; blue also were the sky and the sea she could view from her window whenever the fog lifted. Alma Mendel was weeping for everything she had lost forever, even though her aunt and uncle insisted so vehemently that the separation from her parents and brother was only temporary that they would have convinced any girl less intuitive than her. The very last image she had of her parents was that of a man of mature years, bearded and stern looking, dressed entirely in black with a heavy overcoat and hat, standing next to a much younger woman, who was sobbing disconsolately. They were on the quay at the port of Danzig, waving good-bye to her with white handkerchiefs. They grew smaller and smaller, more and more indistinct, as the boat set out on its journey toward London with a mournful blast from its foghorn and she, clutching the railing, found it impossible to return their farewell wave. Shivering in her travel clothes, lost among the crowd of passengers gathered at the stern to watch their native land disappear in the distance, Alma tried to maintain the composure her parents had instilled in her from birth. As the ship moved off, she could sense their despair, and this reinforced her premonition that she would never see them again. With a gesture that was rare in him, her father had put his arm around her mother’s shoulders, as if to prevent her from throwing herself into the water. She meanwhile was holding down her hat with one hand to prevent the wind from blowing it off as she frantically waved the handkerchief with her other.
Three months earlier, Alma had been with them on this same quay to wave good-bye to her brother, Samuel, who was ten years older than her. Her mother shed many tears before accepting her husband’s decision to send him to England as a precaution just in case the rumors of war became real. He would be safe there from being recruited into the army or being tempted to volunteer. The Mendel family could never have imagined that two years later Samuel would be in the Royal Air Force fighting Germany. When she saw her brother embark with the swagger of someone off on his first adventure, Alma had a foretaste of the threat hanging over her family. Her brother had been like a beacon to her: shedding light on her darkest moments and driving off her fears with his triumphant laugh, his friendly teasing, and the songs he sang at the piano. For his part, Samuel had been delighted with Alma from the moment he held her as a newborn baby, a pink bundle smelling of talcum powder and mewling like a kitten. This passion for his sister had done nothing but grow over the following seven years, until they were forced apart. When she learned that Samuel was leaving, Alma had her first ever tantrum. It began with crying and screaming, followed by her writhing in agony on the floor, and only ended when her mother and governess plunged her ruthlessly into a tub of icy water. Samuel’s departure left her both sad and on edge, as she suspected it was the prologue to even more drastic changes. Alma had heard her parents talk about Lillian, one of her mother’s sisters who lived in the United States and was married to Isaac Belasco—someone important, as they never failed to add whenever they mentioned his name. Before this, she had been unaware of the existence of this distant aunt and the important man, and so she was very surprised when her parents obliged her to write them postcards in her best handwriting. She also saw it as an ill omen that her governess suddenly incorporated the orange-colored blotch of California into her history and geography lessons. Her parents waited until after the end-of-year celebrations before announcing that she too would be going to study abroad for a while. Unlike her brother, however, she would remain within the family, and go to live in San Francisco with her aunt Lillian, her uncle Isaac, and her three cousins.
The entire journey from Danzig to London, and then to Southampton, where they boarded a transatlantic liner to San Francisco, took seventeen days. The Mendels had given Miss Honeycomb, her English governess, the responsibility of delivering Alma safe and sound to the Belasco home. Miss Honeycomb was a spinster with a pretentious accent, prim manners, and a snooty expression. She treated those she regarded as her social inferiors with disdain, while displaying a cloying servility toward her superiors, and yet in the eighteen months she had worked for the Mendels she had won their trust. No one liked her, least of all Alma, but the girl’s opinion counted for nothing in the choice of the governesses and tutors who educated her at home in her early years. To sweeten Miss Honeycomb, her employers had promised her a substantial bonus in San Francisco, once Alma was safely installed with her relatives. The two of them traveled in one of the best cabins on the ship; initially they were seasick, and then bored. The Englishwoman did not fit in with the first-class passengers and would rather have thrown herself overboard than mingle with people of her own social class. As a result, she spent more than a fortnight without speaking to anyone apart from her young ward. Although there were other children on board, Alma wasn’t interested in any of the planned children’s activities and made no friends. She was in a sulk with her governess and sobbed in secret because this was the first time she had been away from her mother. She spent the voyage reading fairy tales and writing melodramatic letters she handed directly to the captain for him to post in some port or other, because she was scared that if she gave them to Miss Honeycomb they would end up being fed to the fishes. The only memorable moments of the slow crossing were the passage through the Panama Canal and a fancy-dress party when someone costumed as an Apache Indian pushed her governess, dressed up in a sheet to represent a Grecian vestal virgin, into the swimming pool.
The Belasco uncle, aunt, and cousins were all waiting for Alma on the dock at San Francisco, which was teeming with such a dense throng of Asian stevedores that Miss Honeycomb feared they had docked at Shanghai by mistake. Aunt Lillian, dressed in a gray Persian lamb coat and Turkish turban, clasped her niece in a suffocating embrace, while Isaac Belasco and the chauffeur tried to gather up the travelers’ fourteen trunks and bundles. The two female cousins, Martha and Sarah, greeted the new arrival with a cold peck on the cheek, then forgot she existed—not out of malice, but because they were of an age to be looking for boyfriends, and this blinded them to the rest of the world. Despite the Belasco family’s wealth and prestige, it wasn’t going to be easy for them to land these much-sought-after husbands, as the two girls had inherited their father’s nose and their mother’s ample outline, but little of the former’s intelligence or the latter’s kindliness. Her cousin Nathaniel, the only male, born six years after his sister Sarah, was edging into puberty with the gawkiness of a heron. He was pale, skinny, lanky, ill at ease in a body that seemed to have too many elbows and knees, but with the sad, thoughtful eyes of a big dog. He kept his eyes fixed firmly on the ground when he held out his hand and muttered the welcome his parents had insisted on. Alma clung so steadfastly to his hand like a life vest that his efforts to free himself proved fruitless.
So began Alma’s stay in the grand house at Sea Cliff, where she was to spend seventy largely uninterrupted years. She almost completely exhausted her stock of tears in her first months there in 1939, and from then on wept only rarely. She learned to bear her troubles alone and with dignity, convinced no one was interested in other people’s problems, and that pain borne in silence eventually evaporated. She had assimilated her father’s philosophy: he was a man of rigid and unshakable principles, proud of having done everything for himself and owing nothing to anyone, which was not exactly true. The simple recipe for success that Mendel had instilled in his children from the cradle on consisted in never complaining, never asking for anything, striving to be the best in everything you do, and never trusting anyone. Alma had to carry this heavy weight on her back for several decades, until love helped her shed some of it. Her stoic attitude contributed to the air of mystery surrounding her, long before she had any secrets to keep.
During the Great Depression, Isaac Belasco not only had managed to avoid the worst effects of the crisis but had increased his fortune. While others were losing everything, he worked eighteen hours a day at his law firm and invested in commercial ventures that seemed risky at the time but in the long run turned out to have been extremely shrewd. He was formal, a man of few words, but with a soft heart. He saw this softness as a character weakness and tried to give an impression of harsh authority, but one had only to deal with him once or twice to become aware of his underlying generosity. He acquired a reputation for compassion that eventually became a drawback to his legal career. Later on, when he ran for judge in the Californian supreme court, he lost the election because his adversaries accused him of showing too much clemency, to the detriment of justice and public safety.
Although Isaac gave Alma a warm welcome, he was soon unnerved by the little girl’s nocturnal crying. Her sobs were muffled and barely audible through the thick carved mahogany doors of her wardrobe, but they reached his bedroom on the far side of the hallway, where he would be trying to read. He assumed that, like animals, children possess a natural ability to adapt, and that the girl would soon get used to the separation from her parents, or that they would emigrate to America. He felt incapable of helping her, restrained by the awkwardness he felt whenever it came to female matters. He found it hard to understand his wife and daughters’ usual reactions, so what chance did he have with this Polish girl who was not yet eight? Gradually he found himself overtaken by the superstitious feeling that his niece’s tears were heralding some great catastrophe. The scars of the Great War were still visible in Europe: the land disfigured by trenches, the millions of dead, the widows and orphans, the rotting corpses of mutilated horses, the lethal gases, the flies and hunger were all still fresh in the memory. Nobody wanted another conflict like that, but Hitler had already annexed Austria and was in control of part of Czechoslovakia, and his inflammatory calls for the establishment of the empire of the super race could not be dismissed as the ravings of a madman. At the end of that January, Hitler had spoken of his intention to rid the world of the Jewish menace. Some children possess psychic powers, thought Isaac Belasco, and so it would not be so odd if Alma glimpsed something dreadful in her nightmares and was suffering from a terrible premonitory grief. Why were his in-laws waiting to leave Poland? For a year now he had been unsuccessfully pressing them to flee Europe, as so many other Jews were doing. He had offered them his hospitality, although the Mendels had ample means and did not need financial help from him. Baruj Mendel responded that Poland’s sovereignty was guaranteed by England and France. He thought he was safe, protected by his money and his business connections, so the only concession he made to the relentless assault of Nazi propaganda was to send his children abroad to weather the storm. Isaac Belasco did not know Mendel, but it was obvious from his letters and cables
that his sister-in-law’s husband was as arrogant and unlikable as he was stubborn.
Almost a month was to go by before Isaac finally decided to intervene in Alma’s drama, and even then he could not bring himself to do so personally, as he felt the problem lay within his wife’s domain. At night, only a constantly half-open door separated the spouses, but Lillian was hard of hearing and took tincture of opium to get to sleep, and so would never have learned of the sobbing in the wardrobe had her husband not pointed it out to her. By this time, Miss Honeycomb was no longer with them. On reaching San Francisco she had been paid the promised bonus, and twelve days later she returned to her native land, disgusted she said by the rude manners, incomprehensible accent, and democracy of the Americans, without considering how offensive these remarks were to the Belascos, a refined family who had treated her with great consideration. When Lillian, alerted by a delayed letter from her sister, unpicked the lining of Alma’s travel coat, she found that the diamonds spoken of in the letter were missing. The Mendels had put them in this classic hiding place more out of a sense of tradition than to protect their daughter against the vicissitudes of fortune, because the stones were not particularly valuable. Suspicion immediately fell on Miss Honeycomb, and Lillian suggested sending one of the investigators from her husband’s practice after the Englishwoman so that they could confront her wherever she was and recuperate what she had stolen. Isaac however determined that it was not worth the trouble. The world and their family were already in enough turmoil as it was to have to go chasing governesses across seas and continents; a few diamonds more or less did not weigh much in the balance of Alma’s life.
“My bridge companions tell me there’s a wonderful child psychologist in San Francisco,” Lillian said to her husband when she learned of her niece’s suffering.
“And what might that be?” asked the patriarch, raising his eyes from his newspaper for an instant.
“The name says it all, Isaac, don’t pretend you don’t understand.”
“Do any of your friends know anyone with a child so disturbed they’ve had to turn to a psychologist?”
“No doubt they do, Isaac, but they’d never in their lives admit it.”
“Childhood is a naturally unhappy period of our existence, Lillian. It was Walt Disney who invented the notion that it has to be happy, simply to make money.”
“You’re so stubborn! We can’t let Alma sob her heart out forever. We have to do something.”
“All right, Lillian. We’ll resort to that extreme if all else fails. For now, you could give Alma a few drops of your mixture at night.”
“I’m not sure, Isaac. That’s a double-edged sword. We don’t want to turn the girl into an opium ad...
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