Tag: Magical Realism

The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

“Ahuja’s wife has of course a name. Lalita. La-li-ta, three liquid syllables perfect-suited to her soft beauty. I would like to call her by it, but how can I while she thinks of herself only as a wife.”

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The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, who was born in an Indian village, and bore a different name, before she discovered she had certain powers with which she could summon those she thought of. Unfortunately for her, she accidentally summons a group of pirates who abduct her. However, soon, with her talents, she turns the tables on them and becomes their queen. She then hears the about an island, where an old woman lives, and imparts the knowledge of spices to those who have the gift needed to communicate with the spices. Those who have this gift are known as Mistresses.

At the end of their training, each Mistress is given a new name and is sent to a different part of the world, where they are to help people with the power of the spices. Tilo chooses her own name, and against the wishes of the Old One, wishes to go to USA. She then wakes up in the body of an old woman, in an Indian store in Oakland. Her customers include various Indian immigrants trying to make a living in the States, and she figures what each of them needs before offering it to them.

I was enthralled in the beginning. The way Tilo sensed what everyone needed reminded me of Vianne from Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, and the way the spices were described to have healing powers reminded me of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate. So taken was I by these descriptions that I recommended the book to others even before finishing it. By the half way mark, however, I realized I’d spoken too soon.

The prose that seemed enchanting in the beginning quickly turns irritating. Nearly everything has been described with superlatives, hyperbole, similes and metaphors. The good prose wears off and begins to grate. This results in the work being overly wordy and bloated. By 3/4th of the book I just wanted it to end, because the themes that had interested me in the beginning had been abandoned in favor of the forbidden love affair between Tilo and Raven. The writing that had been so convincing began to fall flat, and I started questioning everything without finding satisfactory answers.

The ending was weak and seemed forced. There were so many other better ways it could have gone. I’m also left with a lot of unanswered questions, unmet conclusions. The Mistress of Spices takes too many themes, but in the end fails to do justice to any, because it focuses on the weakest link in the story. I’m almost sad to see so much potential wasted.

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Faithful, by Alice Hoffman

Never is a long time.

29432767Faithful is the story of once-popular, now-self-destructive Shelby Richmond. One fateful night, when she was seventeen, she and her best friend Helene go out for a drive. Their car crashes; Shelby survives with minor injuries, but Helene goes into a vegetative state. Traumatized and guilty, Shelby has a nervous breakdown and stops speaking altogether. She’s admitted to a psych ward, where she is raped by an orderly. This is when she gets the first of many postcards. It says, Say Something. And she does. She tells her mother about what’s happening and her mother gets her released from the hospital immediately.
Helene, on the other hand, is being revered as some sort of saint. Those who visit her claim they get cured of all illnesses and misfortunes if they touch her hand. Shelby does not believe in these miracles, but she is still suffering from guilt. Helene and Shelby both once had dreams and bright futures ahead of them. Helene’s lost hers, and Shelby gives up hers, choosing instead to waste her life away in her parents’ basement. She shaves her head, smokes pot, and watches TV shows she claims to hate. Her drug dealer is her old classmate, Ben Mink, with whom she walks to Helene’s house one night. Ben reveals to her that he’s going to the city to become a pharmacist and asks her to go with him. Two years have passed since the accident and Shelby decides to finally leave her hometown. She moves to the city with Ben, gets a job in a pet store, unexpectedly makes friends, and, most importantly, begins to save dogs in need of saving.

Admittedly, this book got off to a very slow and depressing start. It wasn’t just grim, because of the accident – it was very bleak. I disliked this bit of the story, but did not, at any point, feel like putting the book down. I might have, had it continued in that vein, but after Shelby decides to do something with her life, the story was, if not instantly, uplifted. I loved the characters in this book – especially Maravelle, Shelby’s friend from the pet store. I’m not a dog person, but the way Shelby rescues ill-treated dogs was heartwarming, and I found myself falling in love with all her dogs.

When Shelby starts receiving the postcards (Say Something, See Something, Save Something, etc.), I was reminded of Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. But the main difference between the two is, Ed Kennedy receives aces in the mail to save other people; Shelby receives them to save herself. Her guilt and self pity nearly killed her, and even towards the end of the book, her self pity is highly palpable. On the night of the accident, Shelby believes she saw an angel and she believes it is the angel who is sending her the postcards. At other times, she is convinced it is Helene – though Helene is now incapable of doing any such thing.

Speaking of Helene, I felt the whole “miracle” angle was unnecessary. It contributed nothing to the story, and felt like it was forced into it to add a bit of magical realism to it. It was unconvincing, and a little annoying.

Aside from that one grouse, I thought that Faithful was a beautiful story of redemption and growth and forgiving oneself. I have wanted to read Alice Hoffman for a long time, but unfortunately, because of where I live perhaps, her books would either never be in stock or be ridiculously expensive because of import charges attached to them (the number of years I’ve been trying to get a copy of Practical Magic, I tell you!). Since I have never read her, I cannot compare Faithful to any other work of hers. But as someone who’s finally ventured into her world of literature, I felt warmly welcomed and left knowing for sure that I would return someday.

Goodreads

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley. My review is honest and unbiased.

Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel

I firmly believe that it is not always the reader that finds books – sometimes it is the book finds the reader. When I read (and got disappointed by) Alphabet Soup For Losreesha-divakaran-like-water-for-chocolatevers, I was recommended Like Water for Chocolate by an acquaintance. However, I did not read the book as soon as I got a copy; instead continued to wallow in the dry pool of good books I did not feel like reading for a while until I gave up reading altogether for a bit (a bit = 2 nights). Then, it was almost as if LWFC called out to me (I can’t explain this part well; forgive me). So that’s what I read.

Genre: Magical Realism, Romance

Summary: Tita, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, unable to bear the smell of onions while in her mother’s womb, is born prematurely in the kitchen. The kitchen is also where she spends most of her life, and the cook Nancha practically brings her up. Tita is required as per tradition to take care of her mother until she dies. She is, therefore, forbidden to ever get married. Unfortunately, for her, when she is sixteen years old, she falls in love with Pedro. Pedro approaches Elena, Tita’s formidable mother, and asks for Tita’s hand in marriage. Elena flatly refuses, but offers the hand of her elder daughter Rosaura. Pedro promptly agrees, so that he can be near Tita. Tita, believing Pedro has betrayed her, cries so hard while preparing the wedding cake, that all the guests feel tremendously sorrowful and fall ill after eating it. Elena later sends Rosaura and Pedro away to San Antonio, as she suspects something brewing between Tita and Pedro; this is because, the dishes Tita prepares for him cause all those who eat them to grow feelings of extreme passion. Do they ever reunite?

I agree that there are some similarities between LWFC and ASFL but neither can be pronounced as better or worse. They are not comparable, similarities notwithstanding. I wouldn’t say they’re apples and oranges; more like, apples and potatoes.

As far as the prose goes, it’s too direct and not very rich. As far as magical realism goes, it lacks the subtlety so necessary for this genre. It stands out a little sorely in places. I think both of these were lost in translation, and is not the fault of the book itself. The other thing is (which could be the fault of the book), Pedro isn’t very likable. Whatever his intentions in marrying Tita’s sister, the marriage was a product of a flawed logic. He is also shown as a jealous, possessive man. Not the best guy in the world, I’d say.

Now for the good part. Each chapter starts with a recipe. The recipes are interwoven int the narrative and help move it forward quite craftily. Apart from that, what’s really important to know is this: Like Water for Chocolate is an extremely addictive book. It tugs gently at your collar, turns your chin towards it and whispers silkily, “Read me… Now.” And that’s what you do. I even sneaked it to office! And at home, I read it using a flashlight when the power was out. That’s how addictive it is.

To sum it up: LWFC isn’t the best book I’ve read. But it is a book I’d recommend. For all its flaws (and an absolutely underwhelming ending), it is a deliciously magical book. I would recommend it because I feel like talking about it. I feel like asking you what you thought about it. Let me know if you read it, will you?

Goodreads | Amazon