Title: Oleander Girl
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
No. of Pages: 304
Origins: Simon & Schuster
Bottom Line: A highly recommended, sweet and vibrant story that educates as much as it entertains.
““Orphaned at birth, seventeen-year-old Korobi Roy has enjoyed a sheltered childhood with her adoring grandparents. But she is troubled by the silence that surrounds her parents’ death and clings fiercely to her only inheritance from them: the love note she found in her mother’s book of poetry. Korobi dreams of one day finding a love as powerful as her parents’, and it seems her wish has come true when she meets the charming Rajat, the only son of a high-profile family.But shortly after their engagement, a heart attack kills Korobi’s grandfather, revealing serious financial problems and a devastating secret about Korobi’s past. Shattered by this discovery and by her grandparents’ betrayal, Korobi undertakes a courageous search across post-9/11 America to find her true identity. Her dramatic, often startling journey will, ultimately, thrust her into the most difficult decision of her life.””
Thoughts: Even without knowing either of her parents, Korobi Roy knows that she is a fortunate young woman. She has met the man of her dreams and looks forward to a blissful marriage with him. Her grandparents adore her, and her fiancé’s family has welcomed her with open arms. The untimely death of her beloved grandfather shatters her dream-like world and forces her to make tough decisions that could alter the happiness of not only herself but of all of her loved ones. In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel, Oleander Girl, Korobi embarks on a coming-of-age journey that forces her to realize certain truths about her family and herself that will test even the strongest of relationships.
Oleander Girl is definitely a character-driven novel, as both Korobi and Rajat struggle with their identities within a changing environment. Even while Korobi finds satisfaction in her role as the dutiful granddaughter/daughter/fiancée, she grapples with being put into a well-defined box that limits her ability to act and think for herself. Similarly, Rajat must make similar decisions about his ideal wife and his role within the family business. Their individual journeys are particularly poignant since one can easily envision more men and women struggling with similar issues as the world shrinks thanks to the advent of the global business structure and the introduction to and familiarization with other cultures.
The biggest disappointment about Oleander Girl is that a reader will wish there were even more details and descriptions of life in Kolkata than currently exist. Ms. Divakaruni has an ability to create vivid mental pictures within a reader, and the glimpses she gives into the lives of the Bose and the Roy families are so fascinating that one wishes for more of them. The juxtaposition between India and American cultures only increases the interest, especially as they relate to Korobi’s acceptance of her roots and her decisions about her future. There is a large focus on food throughout the novel as well, further increasing a reader’s interest and hunger levels.
As with all excellent novels, the characters in Oleander Girl are wonderfully flawed. Korobi has a tendency to be too deferential to others, succumbing mindlessly to their demands without voicing her concerns or objections. Rajat, and especially his mother, are equally flawed. Rajat makes so many mistakes because he feels he has to act in a certain fashion because of his role as the son of the Bose family rather than going with his gut, while Maman comes across as the Evil Stepmother at times. However, they all have positive traits that redeem their negative attributes. This balance enhances the character element of the story as readers understand that these could be real people and not idealized versions.
Oleander Girl is the type of novel that delights while it instructs. Readers unfamiliar with India get the chance to learn more about the struggles between the haves and the have-nots, tradition versus change, Hindus versus Muslims, and East versus West. At the same time, Korobi and Rajat cross the cultural barrier with their individual identity searches, with which every person eventually struggles at some point in their lifetime. It makes for an impressive and highly relatable story, throughout which the exoticism evoked by its Indian setting serves to enhance a reader’s enjoyment.