Twelve year old William is an orphan, as far as he knows. From the moment his mother’s limp body was carried away five years ago, he’s been a lost soul at an orphanage in Seattle. He has a few friends, including his blind best friend Charlotte, but he longs for a family. As a Chinese-American, though, his chances for adoption are incredibly slim, and he’s resigned himself to years of the same treatment. On the orphans’ collective, made-up birthday, he’s taken to see a movie. To his shock, William recognizes an actress in the film – his mother! Willow Frost looks and sounds just like the beautiful mother he lost five years ago. William decides that he simply must find her and begins in earnest to seek his family again.
A few years ago I read Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a book that I really liked and which I still think about sometimes. I was very much looking forward to this book, so perhaps a bit of disappointment was inevitable. William’s story just didn’t grab me in the same way, nor did the intertwined tale of his mother. The story is actually considerably depressing, as life was for a Chinese woman left mostly to fend for herself as Willow was. I desperately wanted life to improve for her, but as their stories unfolded, William’s place in the orphanage made the outcome clear.
This was still a very beautifully written book, with a number of evocative scenes. I’m honestly not sure why I personally failed to connect with it when I felt so strongly about Ford’s previous book. Looking back on reading it, most of what I remember is rainy, dreary Seattle and the insurmountable hardships that Willow faced throughout her young life, as well as certain plot events around William that I can’t share. I wanted to reach into the book and fix everything for each of the characters, but sadly that isn’t something actually possible.
Would I still recommend that others read this book? I think so. It’s still a telling portrait of the life of Chinese-Americans in the early twentieth century and the difficult lives they faced. It also paints a picture of early Hollywood. Some of the relationships within are very well written, too. My experience doesn’t seem common, but overall I don’t think this was the book for me. Still, if you would enjoy the elements described above, I suspect you would greatly appreciate Songs of Willow Frost.
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