Oleander Girl: A Novel
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Free Press (March 2013), hardcover (ISBN 1451695659 / 9781451695656)
Fiction, 304 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (March 29, 2013). Shelf Awareness provided a galley of this book (furnished by the publisher) in order to facilitate the review, and compensated me for its original publication.
Opening lines: “I’m swimming through a long, underwater cavern flecked with blue light, the cavern of love, with Rajat close behind me. We’re in a race, and so far I’m winning because this is my dream. Sometimes when I’m dreaming, I don’t know it, but tonight I do. Sometimes when I’m awake, I wonder if I’m dreaming. That, however, is another story.
I smile and feel my mouth filling with cool, silver bubbles. Rajat’s fingers brush the backs of my knees. Even in my dream I know that if I slow down just a bit, he’ll grab my waist and pull me to him for a mischievous kiss. Imagining that kiss sends a shudder of pleasure through me. But I don’t want it yet. The chase is too much fun.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
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.
Comments: Before she died in childbirth, Anu Roy instructed that if her baby was a girl, she was to be named “Korobi,” for the beautiful and unexpectedly resilient pink oleander flower. Growing up in her grandparents’ home in Kolkota, Korobi is well-loved and well-educated, and when the eighteen-year-old orphan gets engaged to prosperous Rajat Bose, adulthood seems to be falling perfectly into place for her. But nothing is perfect, and in both the Roy and Bose households, many things aren’t what they seem; the sudden death of Bimal Roy, Korobi’s grandfather, on the night of the engagement party is the first in a series of cracks in their foundations.
|Indian-American novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Korobi is the title character of Oleander Girl, but in telling her story, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (One Amazing Thing) also explores the stories of those around her, and it’s the intersections and overlaps of those stories that make this multiple-perspective novel engrossing reading. Korobi is uncovering long-held secrets that will permanently alter her sense of self, but she’s not the only one whose life is on the verge of change. Her grandmother is unprepared for her new widowhood; her fiancé’s efforts to settle his life before the wedding are complicated by his work and his previous girlfriend; and her search for answers thousands of miles from home may cause real harm, both physical and financial, to her future in-laws. All of these characters, and their relationships with one another, will be tested over the course of the three months between Korobi and Rajat’s engagement party and wedding date.
Divakaruni explores issues of class and politics in modern India and immigrant America within the context of Oleander Girl, but family issues are at the heart of the novel, and that gives it cross-cultural appeal. Told with empathy and intelligence, and accompanied by intrigue, the stories–and issues–of the Roy and Bose families should appeal to a broad range of fiction readers.