I’ve had a hectic past couple of months, so I’m combining March and April’s reads. I hope you get some good recommendations or, if you’ve read any of these before, that you enjoy hearing my take on them!
Disclaimer: I know I'm super late to the party with some of these picks (as some were published many years ago), but I loved them and had to share.
The Japanese Lover by Isabelle Allende
The Japanese Lover tells the story of Alma Belasco, whose mother and father send her to live with an aunt and uncle in San Francisco just as Nazis begin to invade Poland in 1939. Though Alma is torn from her parents and siblings, she eventually settles in to life in California and begins a friendship with shy, gentle Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener.
The book takes us through Alma’s childhood and adult life—where she and Ichimei are regularly torn apart by circumstance and reunited again—into old age, where her path intersects with that of Irina Bazili's, a young woman with a disturbing past who takes on the role of her caretaker. Along with Seth, Alma’s caring and loyal grandson, Irina sets to work trying to understand the story behind the treasured love letters Alma receives every week.
There isn’t much dialogue in the book, which I found slightly off-putting at first, and entire years will take place in one short paragraph, but toward the end of the novel the pace slows down, circles back, and suddenly makes complete sense.
I love that the story focuses on a part of World War II that’s often overshadowed and dismissed—the fact that the U.S. government sent thousands of Japanese families to live in internment camps in horrendous conditions. This part of the novel, which details the Fukudas’ experience being uprooted, stripped of their land and home, and relocated to the middle of a barren wasteland for years was particularly interesting to me.
Though the book is mainly a romance novel, it does a beautiful job conveying the power of enduring, devotional love in all its forms, not just romantic love. I was so moved by Allende’s graceful language and the way she unfolds the story at the end of the book and ties everything together. If you want a story of insurmountable passion and love, that also talks about the sacrifices we make to protect the people we care about, this is it.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I first heard about this book through a blog I like to read called Cup of Jo. But even if I hadn’t learned about it from that, I’d have seen it plastered at the top of bestseller lists everywhere or sitting brightly on a wide wooden shelf at the front of every bookstore.
The book is a memoir written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with lung cancer toward the end of his residency. Paul, who wanted both to practice medicine and to write in his lifetime, tells the story—in clear, elegant prose—of his childhood, his education, his hopes and ambitions, his family, and his impending death.
Drawing on his medical experience and love for literature, Paul writes about time, passion, purpose, and what it means to live well. His writing is simultaneously funny and profound. The last paragraph alone will leave you weeping, pondering, and running to your loved ones to embrace them.
One part that stood out to me as being particularly touching and insightful was the epilogue, which was written by Paul’s wife, Lucy. Her writing is lovely—simple yet powerful—and she provides a wonderfully intimate look at the man whose most vulnerable, painful thoughts and feelings you spend 200 pages absorbing. It’s such a good book—too short and yet packed with thoughtful sentences and anecdotes that force you to really pause and feel something. I highly recommend it.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
This is one of those books I should have read years ago when my mom gifted it to me, but it sat quietly on my shelf until one sunny Saturday in April when I read it all in one sitting in my backyard.
It’s another book centered around the events and people of World War II (shocker, right?), but where it distinguishes itself is in telling the story of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, a true event I'd never heard about before picking up this book. In July 1942, under Nazi orders, the French police brutally arrested over 13,000 Jewish families in Paris, including over 4,000 children. The families were sent to live in crowded, unsanitary conditions in a large bicycle racing stadium (the Vélodrome d’Hiver). They were held there, as well as at other internment camps nearby, then sent away to Auschwitz to die.
American journalist Julia Jarmond, who lives in Paris with her French husband and daughter (in the 21st century), is tasked with writing a commemorative piece on the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Once Julia’s research on the event begins to intersect with her husband’s family history, she becomes intent on finding out what happened to a young Jewish girl named Sarah.
Tatiana de Rosnay weaves back and forth between Sarah and Julia’s stories, and the result is a sharp, moving page-turner of a book. I can’t praise this book enough—it was gorgeous and deeply sad, but also extremely redeeming. The ending gives you just enough hope to be filled with wonder and disbelief, rather than outright depression. Seriously though, read it.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
My best friend sent me this book and I gobbled it up right away. It’s a collection of author Ann Patchett’s beautiful and brilliant personal essays. The happy marriage she refers to in the title is the one between her and her writing.
Each essay focuses on a different moment, epiphany, or period in her life, but they all showcase her as first and foremost a writer. Her deepest, most profound relationship is with her passion, and it shines through in her words.
I always love reading personal stories, but I especially love reading about the lives of people who live in a way I admire and aspire to. Reading about how a successful fiction author and personal essayist learned to embrace her voice and forge a career in writing was inspiring to say the least. If you’re interested in reading about a writer’s life, or even if you just enjoy well-written, thought-provoking, mildly funny personal stories, this is a good one.
The Bungalow by Sarah Jio
This book found its way to me one weekend when I had nothing to read. I saw its bright, pretty cover sitting on my mom’s nightstand and asked to borrow it. It tells the story of Anne Calloway, a 21-year-old who leaves her handsome fiancé in Seattle to serve in the Army Nurse Corps in Bora Bora in 1942.
There, she meets a charming, artistic, laid-back soldier named Westry Green. And with a name like that, I’m sure you can just guess what happens. The two have a beautiful love affair, which takes place mostly inside a small, abandoned beach bungalow that they find and begin to repair together.
But nothing is that simple. The war, the secrets they keep for others, and even a murder on the island begin to tear them apart. The book is part mystery, part romance. The writing is pretty and fast-paced, and the story—especially toward the end—will completely suck you in.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto takes place in an unnamed country in South America, at the lavish home of the country’s Vice-President. A dinner party—complete with a famous opera singer and important guests from around the world—gets hijacked by terrorists. What follows is the story of how a group of revolutionaries, a group of international businessmen, and one stunning, magnetic opera singer begin to live in one house together.
And no, this is not the fictional, sophisticated version of The Real World. It’s a tale of what happens when people from different walks of life must learn to communicate and cohabitate for survival. It wasn’t exactly a page turner for me, but the writing is stunning.
Sometimes I’d read a sentence and then just set the book down and close my eyes, overwhelmed by the beauty and poignancy of that single string of words. Or I’d read a description about love, about kissing, about logic, and I’d stop and think to myself: Yes, that is the truest thing I’ve ever read in my life.
Plus, Ann Patchett’s characters are so vibrant and nuanced that you feel as if you know each one personally. I feel really conflicted and heartbroken about the ending, but that’s also how I know it’s a brilliant conclusion.
Politics, friendship, art, love, sacrifice, community—what more could you want?
Have you read any of these books? If so, let’s discuss! Anyone have a book recommendation for me?