From New York Times bestselling author Isabel Allende, “a magical and sweeping” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) love story and multigenerational epic that stretches from San Francisco in the present-day to Poland and the United States during World War II.
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family—like thousands of other Japanese Americans—are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that 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 come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric 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, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
Sweeping through time and spanning generations and continents, The Japanese Lover is written with the same keen understanding of her characters that Isabel Allende has been known for since her landmark first novel The House of the Spirits. The Japanese Lover is a moving tribute to the constancy of the human heart in a world of unceasing change.
This reading group guide for The Japanese Lover includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco is sent away to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle in California. Her life is quickly changed when she meets the son of her aunt’s gardener, Ichimei Fukuda. Young love blossoms between them, until they are cruelly separated when Ichimei and his family are relocated to a Japanese-American internment camp. Throughout their lifetimes, they manage to reunite again and again, but theirs is a love they are forever forced to hide from the prejudiced eyes of the world.
Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her life and forges a friendship with Irina Bazili—a care worker with her own troubled past—at a nursing home in California. As Irina begins to form a relationship with Alma’s grandson, Seth, the pair investigates a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma in an effort to uncover the secret of Alma’s mysterious Japanese lover.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. As Alma Belasco reflects on her long life and the decisions she made to leave Ichimei and marry Nathaniel, do you think she would have done anything differently if she had had the chance? Why or why not?
2. At the beginning of her time at Lark House, Irina observes, “In itself age doesn’t make anyone better or wiser, but only accentuates what they have always been.” (p. 13) Do you think this is true of Alma Belasco? Why or why not?
3. Alma and Samuel Mendel are just two of many people who were forced to flee Europe during World War II—leaving their homes and loved ones behind. How does this affect the rest of their lives? How does it impact their view of family?
4. Consider this passage as the Fukudas and other Japanese and Japanese-American families board the buses to the internment camp at Topaz:
“The families gave themselves up because there was no alternative and because by so doing they thought they were demonstrating their loyalty toward the United States and their repudiation of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. This was their contribution to the war effort.” (p. 88)
How does the experience at Topaz affect each of the Fukudas’ sense of patriotism and their experiences as Americans? How does this change for each character over the course of internment?
5. Compare and contrast how the Belascos, a very formal family, uphold tradition, versus how the Fukudas, a family of recent immigrants and nisei, respect tradition while embracing their new Americanism.
6. Alma and Ichimei both experience the tragedy and loss of WWII firsthand. How does it affect each of them as children? How does it contribute to their understanding of one another as adults later?
7. Ichimei Fukuda and Nathaniel Belasco are the two great loves of Alma’s life. How are they able to coexist in her heart?
8. What role does race play in the choices Alma makes about her relationship with Ichimei? How would their relationship have played out in a different time period? Compare this with the choices that Megumi makes in her relationship with the soldier Boyd Anderson.
9. How do the choices of each mother throughout the novel change the lives of their children? Consider Alma, Lillian, and Heideko.
10. In reconstructing her life story for Seth’s book, Alma had the opportunity to piece “together the fragments of her biography, spicing them with touches of fantasy, allowing herself some exaggeration and white lies” (p. 177). How does it affect Alma, nearing the end of her life, to be able to control the narrative of her own life? Why do you think she chooses to leave out the stories about Ichimei at first? Why does she eventually decide to tell Seth and Irina the full story?
11. Consider this statement which Ichimei writes in a letter to Alma: “Love and friendship do not age.” (p. 176) Is Ichimei right about this? Why or why not? Consider the way that their relationship changes throughout the novel.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. When the Belasco and Fukuda families separate in 1942, Alma and Ichimei plead, “Write to me, write to me.” Their letters carry on over nearly seventy years and become some of Alma’s most treasured possessions. Take some time with your book club to write a letter to someone important to you. Post it now, or save it to look back on at a later date.
2. Learn more about the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII in one of many available resources, such as the PBS documentary Children of the Camps (pbs.org/childofcamp/), the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles (janm.org/), and the museums or national historic sites at several of the former internment camps, including Topaz, Utah, Manzanar, California, and McGehee, Arizona.
3. Research Vera Neumann, the real-life famous artist who inspired Alma’s designs.
4. Connect with the author Isabel Allende online to learn more about her previous books, her charitable foundation, and her speaking engagements on behalf of social and economic justice for women. Learn more at isabelallende.com.
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, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, The Stories of Eva Luna, Paula, and The Japanese Lover. Her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages and have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. She is the receipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and she divides her time between California and Chile.