Staying up until the wee hours finishing a book on the cusp of daylight savings time was not a wise decision, but I couldn’t stop reading Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The novel was definitely worth the sleep deprivation on Sunday morning. There’s also a surprise towards the end that, looking back, I should have been able to guess. But I didn’t guess it and that’s a testimony to Divakaruni’s well crafted writing.
Korobi Roy, orphaned at birth, was raised by her traditional grandparents in Kolkata, India. As their only grandchild, they made sure Korobi had the best education possible and not want for anything. She knows nothing of her parents except that her mother died during childbirth and her father in an accident. She yearns deeply to know the woman who was her mother but her family remains tight lipped. After a tragedy occurs on the night of her engagement party, she feels compelled to travel solo to America to uncover her family secrets. During her search in post 9/11 United States, Korobi must reevaluate everything she thought she knew about true love, family, race and identity.
Divakaruni deftly weaves the complex threads of her characters into a beautiful tapestry. She also deftly tackles issues such as “flying while brown” in the United States; race and class in India versus race and class in post 9/11 America; traditional Indian values; and even religious differences. None of it feels preachy, but rather it’s a peek into the many layers of living in India, for both Hindu or Muslim characters. She keeps it real for her readers without romanticizing or exoticizing their complexity.
While most of the novel follows Korobi, some of my favorite characters were her warm, nurturing grandmother Sarojini; her fiance’s teen sister Pia; and her fiance’s loyal Muslim chauffeur Asif. While Pia and Asif have minor roles in the novel, they are just as alive on the page as Korobi and her fiance Rajat.
This novel would make a terrific choice for your book club because we can relate to Korobi’s search for her family’s history yet the issues it raises offers plenty to discuss.
My big issue with this book is its cover illustration. It seems the trend for book covers in women’s literature involves a lone woman in soft colors. That doesn’t usually bother me. What bothers me is that the woman on the cover does not look of Indian descent. She doesn’t even come close to the author’s description of Korobi: brown skin with long, dark, curly hair. The woman on the cover is a whitewashed version of Korobi.
The hardcover is just the oleander flowers:
While the Indian version is a chair with a sari:
Is the whitewashing of Oleander Girl‘s cover illustration supposed to make it more appealing to book clubs and non-Indians? We readers should be given more credit.
Don’t let the cover keep you from picking up Oleander Girl by Banerjee Divakaruni. You’ll be missing out if you do.
I received a review copy of the book. This post contains affiliate links.