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Book Review: The Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs

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If you loved the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you owe it to yourself to check out the second novel by author Dana Sachs (If You Lived Here). As with Hotel, Sachs’ story deals with Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II and afterward. In Hotel, the city of Seattle served as the stage on which the story’s events took place; in Nightingale Palace, the city of San Francisco — past and present — serves as the primary stage.

As the story opens, thirty-five-year-old Anna is called to New York City by her grandmother Goldie — a relative she has not spoken to in five years. Anna is a widow and has never quite forgiven her grandmother for the way she spoke so poorly and disrespectfully about Anna’s late husband Ford while he was alive. Goldie is Jewish, in her eighties, twice-widowed, rich — she owns a Rolls Royce and is extremely inflexible and demanding. Goldie wants Anna to drive her across the country to San Francisco in her Rolls Royce she’s named Bridget. Goldie left San Francisco in 1944, and she wants to return some artwork to a member of the Nakamura family. The Nakamuras lived in, and maintained, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park before they were rounded up and placed in a relocation camp.

Anna agrees to her grandmother’s unusual request because she’s become frozen in her grief and has no idea what’s going to happen to her next. Both Anna and Goldie seem to sense that something will occur during the cross-country adventure that will provide an impetus for Anna to decide what she wants and needs out of her life. (Ford has been dead for two years. Anna is alive, but barely so.) At the very least, it’s going to get her out of Memphis and give her the opportunity to see how other people live.

All that matters is elegance.

This is not a novel that can be read quickly, nor should it be. Sachs has a great sense of style and elegance in the way she writes and it must be appreciated. Here’s an example:

…then, without fail, Henry (Nakamura) would pull out whatever beautiful object he had brought to the store and show it to her. Goldie would become transfixed. Carefully his slender hands would open a box, unfold a velvet wrapper, unwind a leather strap from an ivory clasp. Goldie would become almost immobile with pleasure. She would remember experiencing similar sensations when she was a child, watching her mother braid her older sisters’ hair, or do needlework, her fingers piercing the fabric as rhythmically as a musician strumming a guitar. For some reason, observing the fine, precise movements of someone else’s hands gave Goldie a peculiar, almost physical delight. When those hands were Henry’s, though, the experience became exquisite… those moments spent gazing at his hands moving across a little tea set or carved wooden box offered, for Goldie, a fleeting but almost divine consolation.

Nightingale Palace offers up, in novel form, life’s lessons. These are lessons that in earlier times we might have learned from our elders. The story teaches us that everyone finds happiness and fulfillment in his own way, regardless of race, age, sexual preference, religion. It also teaches us that love is not always lost and that every day holds out the promise of something better.

Something good might happen today.

We all have a chance to be happy.

The unforeseen ending of Nightingale Palace is life-affirming and uplifting. It brings to mind the truth of Jackson Browne’s words, that sometimes it would be easier to change the future than the past.

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About Joseph Arellano

Joseph Arellano wrote music reviews in college for the campus newspaper and FM radio station. In recent years he has written book reviews for several publications including San Francisco Book Review, Sacramento Book Review, Portland Book Review and the Tulsa Book Review. He also maintains the Joseph's Reviews blog. For Blogcritics, Joseph writes articles about music, books, TV programs, running and walking shoes, and athletic gear. He believes that most problems can be solved through the purchase of a new pair of running shoes.