Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

He'd do what he always did, find the sweet among the bitter.

This statement identifies the driving force behind this book's protagonist, Henry: a determined optimism that persists in the face of a lifetime of unfulfilled longings. Despite being rejected for much of his life by his countrymen, Henry grows up to become the quintessential American: he is determined in pursuing his goals, as when he follows Keiko to Idaho; he is resilient in the face of failures, as when he marries Ethel after mistakenly assuming Keiko has forgotten him. But while Henry succeeds in hiding his emotional baggage away where he doesn’t have to look at it (much like the Panama Hotel itself stores the old belongings of interned citizens), such a strategy is only successful in the short term. With Ethel’s death, and the discovery of the various artifacts in the Panama hotel’s basement, Henry’s memories are triggered to such an extent that he feels compelled to search for Keiko.

Many critics have asserted that this work is Ford's own version of Romeo and Juliet. But, while there are great similarities between the two works, this is not a perfect comparison. Keiko and Henry are young lovers brought together at a time of war, but the war is not between their families—it is between the nations from which their families originate. While Henry’s father is opposed to his son’s involvement with a Japanese girl, Keiko’s family responds favorably to Henry's interest in their daughter. The real enemy in this work is American society, which stereotypes one ethnic group as an impersonal, homogenous mass and renders impossible a relationship between two nuanced and complex individuals. The death of the two lovers in Ford’s novel is metaphorical, rather than literal, being the death of the affinity that the two shared. It amounts to a kind of suicide—each lover comes to the conclusion that the other has forgotten them, so they both resolve to move on with their respective lives. This metaphorical death affords the opportunity for reconciliation, one which mirrors the reconciliation of Japanese and Chinese American communities with their countrymen in the years following the war.

While many years are wasted, Keiko and Henry do ultimately meet again, a bittersweet occasion characteristic of Henry’s whole life:

Like so many things Henry had wanted in life—like his father, his marriage, his life—it had arrived a little damaged. Imperfect. But he didn't care.

In the end, the Chinese American extended Lee family seems to have found a balance between their home culture and American culture. This is evident in the positive way in which Henry responds to his son’s fiancée and in how Marty maintains the traditions passed down to him by his father regarding the pouring of tea. There is also resolution for other characters in the novel—for instance, Sheldon's dying wish for Keiko and Henry to be reunited is fulfilled. In this scene, Ford also gives an indication that American society more broadly has changed its attitudes toward interracial friendships and families:

A young nurse, someone new whom he didn't recognize, came up to Henry and patted him on the arm.

"Are you a friend or a family member?"

She whispered the question in his ear, trying not to disturb Sheldon. The question hung there like a beautiful chord, ringing in the air. Henry was Chinese, Sheldon obviously wasn't. They looked nothing alike. Nothing at all.

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