The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells the story of a young Chinese-American boy, Henry Lee, and his lifelong love for his childhood friend, Keiko Okabe. The story is partly set in 1942, when America is at war and 'enemy' citizens (those with Italian, German but mainly Japanese heritage) are being interned in prison camps. Henry is a lonely child - sent to an almost all-white school by his stern parents, his only friend is Keiko, a young girl of Japanese descent who, like Henry, is earning her scholarship by working in the school kitchens. They are only 12 when the story begins and their friendship and blossoming romance is sensitively portrayed.
As the grip of war tightens, Keiko and her family are among the thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent who are rounded up and imprisoned, supposedly to prevent them 'spying' for the enemy, and what belongings they can't take with them are hurridly stashed in the basement of the Panama Hotel.
The story of Henry and Keiko's wartime friendship is interspersed with flash-forwards to 1986, when Henry has taken early retirement and, after a happy marriage, is alone again with occasional visits from his somewhat distant son Marty. When he learns that the belongings of those Japanese families have been unearthed from the basement of the recently re-opened Panama Hotel, it reawakens his feelings for his wartime friend and his curiosity about what became of her and her family.
This is a beautifully told story, heartwarming and beguiling but thankfully not over-sentimental or twee. In his Author's Note, Jamie Ford says that he wished to recreate the internment of Japanese-Americans "without judging the good or bad intentions of those involved at the time". It's hard not to judge, but this was wartime and the pervading atmosphere of suspicion and fear, however irrational, is convincingly brought to life. A highly recommended read which manages to educate as well as entertain, I'm not surprised so many people have already fallen in love with this book.