It’s a pity that Los Angeles doesn’t get a real fall. Bestselling author Jamie Ford’s sophomore release, Songs of Willow Frost, is a bittersweet chronicle of love and loss that almost begs to be read with a stiff glass of whiskey (or tea, for those underage) by a windowsill that overlooks a drizzly autumn day. In an ideal world, a soft jazz song would be playing in the background to seal the mood.
Set in Seattle in the 1920s and ’30s, before and after the stock market crash, Songs explores the relationship of a Chinese-American mother, Liu Song, and her estranged son, 12-year-old William Eng. William has lived in an orphanage for most of his life, but he still remembers his “Ah-ma,” who left him as a young child for unknown reasons. After he sees his mother on screen — now a famous “Oriental movie star” going by the stage name Willow Frost — he vows to find her and learn the truth about his heritage.
Ford is a talented storyteller, and Songs showcases his skill at bringing historic places and people to life. The pages are rich with descriptive prose that paints historic Seattle on a large and expressive canvas, as the plot interweaves William’s search to find his mother against Willow’s journey, which will lead her to give up her only son.
Songs will resonate with fans of Ford’s first novel, On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, as the books share complementary strengths, tonally and thematically speaking. Both are love stories rooted in the past, yet unraveling in the present, full of sacrifice and longing. Each story is also inspired by the Chinese-American culture in Seattle, set in periods when the rights of Chinese-Americans were unfairly limited.
Unfortunately, the central characters in Songs do not feel as realized as those in Ford’s first novel. That is not to say that William or Liu Song seem static — far from it. They overflow with a distinct essence of the era and embody overarching themes that many people have experienced. Still, the characters at times feel like a means to an end: puppets, whose strings are thin enough that one might not notice them at first, until, that is, they are yanked to serve the novel’s purpose.
Songs is semi-autobiographical and that might be the book’s biggest strength and weakness. The ideas that these characters struggle with are real: Ford’s own mother was poor and couldn’t afford to give birth in a hospital. Ford’s grandmother was a U.S. citizen, who used the freedom America provided to her advantage and yet, as a minority, was unable to receive proper medical care. Both women proved to be resilient in their own ways and it is easy to see why Ford borrowed elements of each woman when writing Willow, especially.
Still, perhaps having such a personal connection to the characters might have made it too tempting to give Willow and her son a happy ending. On principle, there isn’t anything wrong with a happy ending — it’s hard to find someone who would object to a story that cuts likable characters a break. But there is a problem when that “happily ever after” feels forced.
In this case, the ends tie together too neatly. Willow has strong personality traits, yet she seems to stand by them firmly only when they suit the plot. Truly, if one were to go back to the beginning of the novel, it seems strange that she never tried to take William out of the orphanage after she became a star. Yes, there are reasons behind her decision to stay away. But at the same time, she had the means for some time to take William and go somewhere where they could be a family. Why, then, was it up to William to find her?
William’s best friend, Charlotte, also feels like a plot device at times. Her story is a powerful one: She is a blind girl whose abusive father adopts her in order to receive her government support check. But ultimately her role in the story seems to be written solely to spur William into action.
Still, despite these character flaws, the overall tapestry of the story is magnificent. Reading Songs is like stepping back in time. Ford has done his homework to create highly evocative descriptions of the period’s food, clothing and culture. He credits an exhaustive list of resources including Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American experience, the Museum of History & Industry, the Tacoma Public Library and University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Projects for helping him research the period, and it shows.
Indeed, Seattle at that time feels like its own character in the story. Songs might falter at times when it comes to Willow and William’s interaction, but throughout the novel, Seattle is living and breathing. Finishing the story, William and Willow might not stay with you long, but Seattle will. It comes alive through Ford’s story and it is magnificent.