Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

One of the great things about having a book group, or in my case a blogging buddy, is that it forces you to read and finish books you might not otherwise. Now in my case, my dear friend Col over at Col Reads - she and I often read the same books anyway, or recommend books to each other, but we do it on our own timetable. When she and I decide to blog a book together, though - that means I have to finish it.

The Mistress of Spices: A Novel was not one of those books I wanted to finish.

The story concerns Tilo, an Indian "Spice Mistress" who, after discovering her magical power on her childhood home - a tropical island - and subsequent kidnapping by pirates, is trained in the ancient ways by the Old One, and sets down in an Indian ghetto in Oakland, California. There, she inhabits a spice shop from which she is supposed to dispense help in the form of spices that will aid her customers, knowing the powers of each spice and seeing the needs of each customer. To a lonely boy, the power to make friends; to a fighting family, a spice to sooth. And so on.

It's an interesting premise and I enjoyed many of the characters who came into the store, and their stories, albeit somewhat cliche'd, were compelling enough that I wanted to know how they turned out. There was Jagjit, the young Indian boy who is bullied at school because he is different and cannot communicate with the other children. A young wife suffers in an arranged marriage and yearns for a child. A traditional Indian family fractures when their Americanized daughter starts dating outside her ethnicity. And then there is the mysterious American, who Tilo cannot work out but by whom she is captivated.

Unfortunately, Tilo is very much the problem with Mistress. First, the style of narration is very dream-like, with sing-song poetic styling that works well in the early chapters, which take place in memories and fantasy worlds. They are oddly out of place in the Oakland ghetto, and it still works somewhat, because Tilo, too, is out of place, as are her customers, thrown as they are into a different world. But after a while, the writing style becomes grating - too much deliberate vagueness, too much introspection.

Part of the problem with the writing is that it works to conceal who Tilo really is - and although one could argue that she is meant to be a mysterious character - I had difficulty understanding her motivations or caring what her outcome would be. I was interested in many of the sub-stories, but not actually the main story.

A secondary issue is that, in creating such a dreamy tone in the narration, the author has difficulty creating other voices that aren't jarring or worse - stilted. Sometimes Raven, the love interest, sounds like Tilo; other times she lapses into a voice like another character, just briefly, but so dominant is the tone that what might have been a minor flaw is greatly magnified. At other times, dramatic scenes are drained of their drama, lost as they are in the monotony of the narration.

Finally, too much is left unexplained in Mistress, and although I recognize that there is meant to be a certain amount of mystery and magic to tale, in this case what goes unexplained are key reasons for actions that drive the story. The Old One, who pops in Obi-Wan Kenobi style from time to time, at one point exhorts Tilo to "Remember why you were given your power." - which is not explained. Tilo is not supposed to leave her store, as dire consequences will follow - which is not explained. The spices talk to Tilo, and stop talking to Tilo, again not explained and unfortunately reminding me a bit of the Chuckle Patch in the Magic Garden - snickering off to the side.

Mistress of Spices is full of imagination and potential - but the poor execution takes off so much luster, it never really shines.

I read this book together with Col over at ColReads - why not hop on over to her blog and see if she liked it any better?


  1. The Chuckle Patch! LOL! I thought of them as a cranky Greek chorus, but Chuckle Patch works! Sounds like we had a pretty similar view on this one -- some good elements but not a perfect execution by any means. I think I liked the love story more than you did, but I'm feeling kind of sappy at the moment. Great review. Have you decided what's next?

  2. i found you while goggling for an image that had penguin, motorcycle and birthday in it. i'm an official blogger blogger but end up having trouble communicating with other blogger folks directly. thus this comment
    my relation to penguins is more out of the closet then yours but it still all comes back to a little bit of the desparado penguin hidden somewhere within. thought i might suggest a penguin based book which is in fact a usually unnoticed classic:n penguin island by anatole france. its a wonderful satire which probably has something to say for today. its on google books also. see what you think. my blog is littlebluenews named after the smallest of penguins.

  3. Must be an enjoyable read The Mistress of Spices: A Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.


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