Everything I knew about cities, when I was a girl, I learned from stories. One novel that stood out for me was Marilyn Sachs’ Amy Moves In, a story which has a family moving into an apartment in a city, where Amy has to start at a new school and adjust to a new neighbourhood, experiences I struggled with too.
Marilyn Sachs was writing for a generation earlier than mine, but her books were readily available in the public and school libraries I frequented: I reread them often. As it turns out, Amy Moves In isn’t one of her San Francisco stories, however. It’s set in New York, in the Bronx, with Boston Road and Crotona Park figuring briefly, although mostly it’s about the apartment building and the stoop.
It reminded me, however, of another children’s book that I loved as a kid, which is set in San Francisco: Laurence Yep’s Child of the Owl (1977). Casey is just two years older than Amy, twelve, when her father’s hospital stay translates into Casey’s staying with her grandmother in Chinatown. As a kid, what stood out to me were differences between cities and towns, but with this story, Chinatown made San Francisco as different and new as it was for Casey. (It’s part of Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, and there are others with SanFran settings too.)
But for San Francisco reading this month, I turned to Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover (2015), which I’d come across last month, looking for books set in Kyoto (it’s not, BTW). Translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, it’s a story which Allende says “could only happen in San Francisco”. But, for all its regular mentions, the city is not as prominent as you might expect.
Instead readers are focussed on Lark House, where 80-year-old Alma Balasco lives in a retirement home, and then we move back in time. The germ for the story came from a conversation with a friend of Allende’s, who spoke of her mother’s 40-year-long relationship with a Japanese gardener.