I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had everything I was looking for and more until I read Jamie Ford’s newest novel “Love and Other Consolation Prizes.” I laughed, I cried, I hoped for it to never end and I circled some of the most endearing paragraphs in red ink so many times that I nearly put a tear in the page.
Ford’s story follows Ernest Young, a 12 year old half-Chinese boy entranced by the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle. After surviving a terrifying month on an immigrant ship from Asia, Ernest lives as a charity student at a boarding school where the treatment is nearly as harsh as on the ship. The opportunity to attend the fair seems nothing short of a dream, until he realizes that he is the prize and will be raffled off as a servant to the highest bidder at the fair. Ernest is raffled off to the madam of a high class brothel where his life changes forever when he meets the precocious young daughter of the madam — the fiery scullery maid, Fahn. For the first time in his life, Ernest feels as though he has a family, and has found himself a real home. There is an immediate sense of comfort between the residents of the brothel and Ernest thus making him feel incredibly comfortable.
Fifty years later, in the dark shadow of the second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to bring his ailing wife, who is suffering from dementia and illness, back to the woman she once was. He constantly avoids the memories of his childhood and keeps his family secrets hidden from his grown up daughters.
The story jumps from Ernest’s tumultuous albeit adventurous past to his dragging and difficult present, creating a relationship between the two worlds, as Ernest’s family, and he himself, discover who he really is.
The story of Ernest’s childhood is interesting and historical, feeling just enough like an anachronism that 1909 should. The culture of the brothel, matched with the descriptions of their progressive and cultural outside world fits the time period perfectly. The detail included in the descriptions of the house and the lifestyle of the brothel is magically compelling in a way that makes the book impossible to put down.
The early 1900s juxtaposes with the early 1960s in the most wonderful way, making for a comfortable switch between time periods. It is between these two time periods that the reader can understand Ernest as not just a character in a book, but as the imaginary manifestation of real struggles and issues that many people can relate to.
The story is told in prose that spends generous time describing the setting and characters, making both seem incredibly real. The reader falls just as in love with the two strong female characters as Ernest does, is incredibly entranced by the bossy Madam and her swirl of anxiety and depression and becomes charmed by the brothel’s kind and witty piano player. There is something endearing about being placed in the heart of Ernest’s struggle in the beginning of the story, sailing to America right beside him and falling in love right when he does.
The novel is truly an exceptional piece of fiction. It’s a family story that largely surrounds the nature of love; however, it is also dangerous, promiscuous, sweet, naive and intelligent. All of these things at once make for an intoxicating yet pleasant literary cocktail.
My only wish was that it was longer. I could have lingered in the streets of Seattle below a large looming Ferris Wheel, in the kitchen with Fahn or in a restaurant booth with Ernest’s wife for much longer than I did in the pages I held in my hands.
Ultimately, it inspired me to read more of Ford’s work and to invest in more Asian American literature about the lives of Asian American people. I only hope people gravitate toward this paperback in the future, and fall in love with it as quickly as I did.