Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: "Love and Other Consolation Prizes" by Jamie Ford

"'My theory,' Maisie said, 'is that the best, worst, happiest, saddest, scariest, and most memorable moments are all connected. Those are the important times, good and bad. The rest is just filler.'"

For Ernest Young, born Yung Kun-ai in China just before the start of the 20th century, some of the worst and saddest moments in his life came at a very young age. At five years old, the illegitimate son of a white missionary and a Chinese woman, he and his mother know abject poverty, which causes his mother to make two heartbreaking decisions, one of which is sending him away to America, ostensibly so he can find a better life.

While he is lucky to survive the overseas journey, his life when he arrives in America isn't much better, as he is bounced from place to place, with no true companionship and no one to give him affection, and he is ridiculed by his appearance because of his mixed cultural background. At 12 years old, Ernest Young (as he is now called) is a charity student at a boarding school in Seattle, treated with general disregard by a wealthy patron who pays for his education. He longs for more opportunities, to get more out of life.

His patron brings him to the 1909 World's Fair, and tells him the next step in his life: he will be the prize in a raffle at the fair, and the winner will take him "to a good home." To the surprise of everyone, including Ernest's moral-crusading patron, the winner of the raffle is Madam Flora, the savvy, flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel. Madam Flora is known for making sure her "girls" are not only beautiful but well-educated and sophisticated; she calls them her "Gibson girls." Flora has had her heart set on a houseboy, and she knows Ernest will fit the bill.

Ernest becomes friends with Fahn, an outspoken housemaid with whom he has a previous connection, and Maisie, Flora's headstrong daughter, and little by little, finds himself smitten with both young women. As strange as it may seem given the setting, for the first time, Ernest feels at home, feels part of a family. But when Madam Flora's job-related illness becomes too much to bear, it threatens to ruin the lives of all who live in the brothel, and sets Ernest, Fahn, and Maisie on different courses which might separate them.

Fifty years later, as the World's Fair returns to Seattle, Ernest is caught up in the memories of his childhood when his daughter hears the story of him being offered as a raffle prize. For Ernest, these memories are bittersweet, particularly as he tries to help his ailing wife deal with her own memories, and ensure his children are protected from the ultimate truths of their parents' lives.

It's funny, but when I'm trying to think of a book to read, I always forget Jamie Ford, yet every time I read one of his books, like the exceptional Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I wonder why he slips my mind. Perhaps it's because his writing seems so effortless, and he so easily is able to pull me into his stories and fascinate me with his characters.

While I wasn't as emotionally wrecked by Love and Other Consolation Prizes, I still enjoyed it a great deal. Even though you as a reader know more about the plot than the characters do, there were still a few surprises Ford threw in. I did wish the plot was a little more linear, because I found the shift between past and present a little jarring occasionally, and I felt things moved at a slower pace than I would have liked. But these characters and their story is a beautiful, heartfelt one (made all the more emotional when you learn it is based on a true story), and there are some emotional moments worth savoring.

This is a book about overcoming struggles, the difficulties in following your heart, and what it feels like to finally belong somewhere, with people you care about who care about you, after never believing that could be true. If you enjoy historical fiction that doesn't feel historical, or you just like well-written stories, pick up Love and Other Consolation Prizes. It's a story you'll keep thinking about.

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