Thinking only of her welfare, Alma Mendel’s parents sent her from Poland, to live with relatives in America in order to escape the wrath of the Nazis and the inevitable war fast approaching. Six year old Alma Mendel was suddenly in a strange land with strange people, and she did not know if she would see any member of her family again. The Belascos were a kind family, however, whose warm influence on Alma was evident. Their wealth provided her with a lifestyle she grew to enjoy and did not want to give up. A close and lasting friendship grew up between her cousin Nathaniel and herself. She also established a long time and very warm friendship with Ichimei Fukuda, the son of Takao, the gardener.
Irina Bazili’s grandparents in Moldova sent her to live with her mother and stepfather in America to free her from the danger of being taken by sex traffickers. Unfortunately, they sent her from the frying pan into the fire. Her stepfather is a low-life. When she finally escapes from his clutches, as a teenager, she does whatever she can to survive. She holds several jobs until she eventually obtains a job in Lark House, a residence for the aged in various stages of health. She loved the work and met many interesting people, one of whom was Alma Mendel Belasco. After she began working for her, a friendship blossomed and flourished between them, even though they were from entirely different backgrounds. When she meets Alma’s grandson Seth, they begin to work on a book together, and they soon discover many of the secrets of Alma’s hidden past. As the history of several decades is revealed, references are made to Hitler and the Nazis, Pearl Harbor and the resultant Japanese Internment Camps. In addition, the plight of Hitler’s victims and the effect of that war on their relatives abroad was highlighted without become maudlin.
The story also demonstrates the approach of the elderly to the end of their lives, to the friendships they hold onto and the relationships they cherish. It clearly illustrates their feelings of self worth and the difficulty they experience as they lose their independence. They know the number of days before them is diminishing, but for some, that knowledge frees them to live as they wish, for as long as they have. The situation is, they know, out of their control.
Many characters were extremely complicated with multifaceted personalities, unique secrets and hidden pasts. The only character that I felt was simply drawn was Kirsten, the young woman who was a victim of Down’s syndrome; although she was a minor character her role was an important one. She viewed life simply, in black and white; she loyally followed instructions and was devoted to those with whom she was involved. Without guile, she was the least complicated. The backgrounds and customs of the characters’ varied cultures, lifestyles and religions were elaborated on so that the reader understood the way they experienced life. However, it was at times, hard to keep track of all of them as the story often felt like it was bouncing from one to another.
Alma said “old people who take to their bed never get up”, and she lived everyday of her life for as long as she could. The aging process and decline associated with it, its frailties and illnesses were handled very tenderly and with empathy by the author. The elderly were not ridiculed, but rather they seemed resurrected as viable members of society with hopes and dreams and desires that continued even after they grew old and infirm, some even going so far as publicly protesting various principles with which they disagreed. The weekly gardenias that arrived at the residence for Alma were a source of curiosity since no one there knew who sent them to her. According to proflowers.com, “the gardenia symbolizes a budding ecstasy, usually the result of secret and newly blooming love. Sent solo or in a bouquet, they’re meant to tell the recipient, I think I’m in love with you.” Did Alma have a secret admirer?
Alma’s life felt a bit like a fairytale while Irina’s was more of a nightmare. The problems of the elderly and others were often illuminated, as were relationships. Deftly, through the use of animals like the dog Sophia and the cat Neko, the author illustrated the value of lasting relationships even when disabilities intrude. She also underscored the mercy that is inherent in the idea of euthanasia. Animals are relieved of their pain and suffering while humans are forced to live on, sometimes as vegetables without the ability to die with dignity. At the end of the book, all of the pieces were knitted together, and although it was not really sad, as the circumstances were inevitable, I still thought that homes for the aged were sad places, no matter what one does, no matter the atmosphere, because people who enter that world have left the outside world behind forever.
Isabel Allende has written a novel that encompasses many aspects of life covering love, romance, prejudice, war, race relations, Aids, homosexuality, the mentally disabled, pornography, the sexually abused, the lifestyles and thoughts of the aged, and the secrets we all keep from each other. Perhaps it was too large an endeavor to cover all of these subjects since it sometimes felt disjointed. I have read books before by this author and have been impressed by her writing style. It is clear and well delivered prose, but even though it is well written and interesting, so many important issues were discussed that some paled with the multitude, and the effect was to diminish the drama and influence they could have possessed and presented to me, Also, I was surprised that this excellent author chose to descend deeply into the PC world by presenting every alternate lifestyle she could. Still, it was a worthwhile read because of the author’s skill in presenting this complicated tale.
The reading by the narrator, Joanna Gleason, about two disparate human beings, one who was a Jewish refugee, one a Japanese internment victim, who were joined together with deep affection and undying love, was with appropriate emotion and stress, not leading the story, but being led by the prose, thereby creating a hushed, soft, relaxing and respectful atmosphere for the reader. It effortlessly moved along, although it felt a little bit repetitive since some incidents were told again from the vantage point of different characters.
*** For clarification on the characters: Alma is the grandmother of Seth, Ichimei is the son of Takao, the gardener of the Belasco mansion, Lenny Beal was a close friend of Nathaniel Belasco, Alma’s cousin and friend who later on became her husband. Later in life, with his little dog, Sophia, Lenny was also a very dear friend of Alma’s. Irina, the nursing assistant at the home, Alma’s confidant and savior, was a damaged soul whose relationship with Seth helped to heal her.