nolead begins By Isabel Allende

Atria. 336 pp. $28

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by

Lynn Rosen

Lark House sounds like a charming place to retire. A former private mansion, it is surrounded by 10 acres of carefully tended Northern California gardens and peopled with "left-wing intellectuals, oddballs, and second-rate artists."

Alma Belasco arrives, a tall, haughty 79-year-old beauty from a wealthy family. Obviously, she has a secret. Also at Lark House is Irina Bazili, a 23-year-old of Moldovan origin who has landed here as a worker after years of drifting from place to place to escape her own secret, some terrible trauma hidden in her past.

Here in the safety of the old folks, these two will find each other, and see whether they can find their way to peace of mind. Irina will seek to discover the truth about Alma's Japanese lover, and Alma and her grandson Seth will try to coax Irina to lay down her burdensome past. Along the way, their stories will wend through global and political history, including the struggles of the Moldovan people in a post-Communist era, the internment of the American Japanese population during World War II, child pornography, and the AIDS epidemic.

It's a narrow canvas with a wide scope, and if anyone is up to the task, you'd think it would be Isabel Allende, who has won our hearts in book after book of magical storytelling. This child of political unrest, who spent much of her youth in Chile and fled after her cousin Salvador Allende was murdered in a Pinochet military coup, knows upheaval first-hand, as in her debut novel, The House of the Spirits.

One dearly wishes The Japanese Lover possessed even a little of that novel's power. Alma, Irina, and the other characters in their world have potential. Alas, they arrive dead on the page. The book repeatedly violates the basic writing tenet of "Show, don't tell." Nowhere do her characters engage in sparkly dialogue or take actions that make our pulses race. We are told that they are lively and enchanting, but we don't see it. We are kept at a distance by stiff language. In addition, the book includes pages of history updates that sound like school book reports. It is as though what we are reading is an extended plot description that has not yet had life breathed into it.

This reader waited in vain for The Japanese Lover to come to life and heard only a clunk: the sound of a literary idol falling.

Lynn Rosen (lynn@openbookphilly) is co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park.