Monday, January 31, 2011

Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni — 352 pgs


Book CoverTilo is a mistress of spices. Trained on a beautiful island by the Great Mother, Tilo is reincarnated into an old woman who must remain in her storefront spice shop, doling out blessings and assistance through the use of her spices to those who enter her shop. Her customers are Asian Indians like herself who have found life in America isn't what they hoped it would be. There is the woman who is trapped in a brutal arranged marriage, the man who puts himself into great danger in order to move up the in the ranks of the working class, and the young boy who is beginning to find acceptance from the various street gangs who crowd the city. As Tilo works her magic for the unfortunate people that visit her, she comes to love them and get involved in the small details of their lives. One day, a handsome and curious man enters her shop and Tilo finds herself entranced by his apparent interest in her. But Tilo's life is a stringent one, and due to the promises she made to the Great Mother, she's not free to become enmeshed with him. She is not even free to leave the store that she calls home. Tilo becomes more and more enamored with the strange man, and when he begins to reveal the secrets of his life to her, she decides upon a dangerous path. She begins leaving the store in order to further help some of her customers as she falls headlong into desire with the man who she believes can change her destiny, embarking on a journey that may end up costing her livelihood and possibly her life. In this work of magical realism and myth, Divakaruni tells the story of a woman who must decide which is more important, the secrets she has given her life to protect, or the longing and desires of her secret heart.

I've previously read numerous books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and all of them have been amazingly interesting and full of life. I particularly loved The Palace of Illusions. This book, I discovered, was her first, and I think although it definitely had some of the hallmarks that I've come to recognize in her writing, it was by far the roughest of her books I've read to date. I found that although the premise of the story was an interesting one, the way it was written and the sometimes scattered effect of the plot was not really to my liking.

First off, I felt the sections that dealt with Tilo's time on the island got a bit of a short shrift. As a reader, I only got to know the backstory of the island in small asides that were sprinkled throughout the first sections of the book. What I did read about it was also organized a bit poorly and it was somewhat jumpy and underdeveloped. I learned that Tilo was at first a great healer and magic woman in her village, but then was captured by pirates (!) after summoning them with a calling spell. Later sections became even stranger and I had a hard time getting invested in the backstory. I think there is a fine line to be walked when writing magical realism. Too much and things become unbelievable and corny, and that's the problem I had here. When it's done right, magical realism gently brushes the story with a glittering mysticism, turning it into a world that you can almost believe exists in tandem with your own. This book didn't do that very successfully, which was something of a disappointment.

I also felt that Tilo, as a character, was very immature in her attitudes and behaviors. Though she had lofty ambitions to help those around her, in reality, a lot of what she did was selfish and self-centered. Sometimes she would go out of her way to help someone in need not because of how it would help them, but because she had feelings of shame and guilt about the power she wasn't exerting on their lives. Never did Tilo seem as selfish as when the mysterious man made his entrance. At first she can only be blamed for putting off her responsibilities, but soon she began to do things that were out of character for her, such as seeking the superficial beauty she thought the man wanted. These behaviors went against all she had been taught, and there was hardly a time that she wasn't flaunting her disobedience, despite what it was costing her. I began to feel very unsympathetic for Tilo and all she was doing, and felt more disengaged from her as the book continued. I'm sad to say that Tilo's changes towards the end of the book didn't please me, and in fact, made me rather angry.

One thing I did like was the focus it drew on the Indian immigrant experience. Most of the characters who came to Tilo looking for help were at the mercy of the ideals of the America that they had relocated to. They were underpaid, overlooked and unappreciated. They dealt with these disappointments in various ways, seeking the money, acceptance and influence that sadly eluded them. I thought there was a lot of power and truth in these sections of the story, and really got an idea of how hard it could be for someone to leave the only home they've ever known to strike out for a place where they thought power, wealth and happiness resided. Not all of Tilo's customers' stories had happy endings; some were decidedly ambiguous, which I also liked because I felt it reflected the reality of the situation of the immigrant experience. In the end, there are a lot of frustrations and no easy answers for these people, and like in real life, they must forge ahead regardless.

The writing in this book was scatter-shot at best. Very little punctuation was used, and there was what I felt to be a sort of messiness of ideas trying to compete with each other in the narrative. Since there were no quotation marks, it was often hard to tell when someone was talking or just thinking to themselves. I found that this bothered me a lot more than it usually does, and instead of feeling experimental, it felt more like laziness and artificiality. I begab to lose patience early on and was glad it wasn't a long read, because while I did want to find out what happened to Tilo, I was annoyed by the style in which the book was written. One could argue that the book was written in a style that complimented its character, but I don't believe that was done successfully at all, and the way I felt about the writing style overshadowed a lot of the better aspects of the book.

Though I will continue to read Divakaruni's books, I must say this one was a disappointment of a sort, though you could just chalk it up to the perils of a first time author trying to find her footing. I think if I were to recommend anything by this author, it would definitely be The Palace of Illusions, a book I gave a top notch rating. This is a book that really only needs to be read by completists, and while there were some shining moments in the story, overall it wasn't a favorite of mine. Hopefully this review doesn't turn other readers against Divakaruni's work, because I feel she has a light and melodious way with most of her stories and is a wonderful author of Indian fiction.

15 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Very good review, bringing up a lot of things I hadn't thought of while reading the book! In the end though I feel the same - I don't LOVE her books, but LIKE them, and would continue to read her for the good elements.

Jenny said...

I think I had this on my TBR at one point but I must have gotten rid of it. Doesn't sound like something I would like anyway. Fantastic review!

Trisha said...

Most things I can overlook, but a protagonist who is both selfish and inconsistent is not one of them.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I guess with any author, even the great ones, they can't all be winners. I like the premise, and have read other books like it, but you have to deliver a likeable character for it to work I think.

Suko said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy this one more. I love the title.

Steph said...

Your review has definitely made me interested in trying this author! It sounds like she has a bit of a magical realism vibe, which you know I love. I do want to read more Indian/Asian authors as well, so she seems like a perfect fit for me! Thanks for bringing her to my attention!

softdrink said...

My next Divakaruni won't be this one, then! :-D

Vasilly said...

Great review. I love Divakaruni's writing too! I'm pretty sure I read this book as a teen because the plot sounds so familiar and even then I had a problem with this book. Have you read her poetry yet? Her collection, Black Candle, is one of my favorites.

Jenners said...

Sorry that this one didn't quite live up to the other books. I do agree with you ... writing magical realism is a very tricky thing to pull off.

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I've been meaning to read this author and planned to start with this one because it was longlisted for the Orange. Perhaps I will still start here so the others seem even better. I'm sorry it was a disappointment for you.

Amy said...

I've only read one of Ms. Divakaruni's books, One Amazing Thing but am interested in reading others. Palace of Illusions been recommended by several people. The story in Mistress of Spices Tilo is intriguing, it sounds to me like Mistress has some issues and problems that render it a more frustrating than enjoyable read.

Your review is fantastic like the other reviews of yours that I've read. I really appreciate your honesty and thoroughness. I think when I read another of this author's books, it probably won't be this one.

Pam said...

Sister of My Heart is my favorite book by Divakaruni. It was also the first one I ever read of hers.

TheBookGirl said...

One of the reading goals I set for myself this year was to read some fiction set in the Indian subcontinent, a genre I don't read alot of, although I do love Umigar's books, so this review is really helpful for me -- what I take away from it, is that this is a writer that I want to try, but this is not the book to start with.
Thanks for the comprehensive review :)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have not read this one, but I thought the movie wasn't bad.....it was a while ago. Thanks for the great review.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I think I have the Palace of Illusions, but i've never had the chance to read it. I'll have to check into this. Great review!

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