Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Oleander Girl tells the story of Korobi Roy, a strong-willed and spirited young woman who, despite the deaths of her parents when she was an infant, has known privilege with her grandparents amid their sprawling house in Kolkata. Much to the delight of her grandparents, Korobi has found love with the doting but elusive Rajat Bose and will soon marry into a family among the upper echelons of society. Still, in the face of all her life's joy Korobi is listless; she longs for the blessing of parents she never knew, dreams of the mother whose death was entwined with Korobi's birth. No sooner have Rajat and Korobi announced their engagement than unforeseen events unleash a wave of trouble on Korobi, led by a secret her grandfather has kept from her all her life. Propelled by her commitment to truth, Korobi leaves her fiancé and her seemingly perfect life behind as she ventures across an America still reeling from the recent events of 9/11. Against this foreign backdrop she'll call on the depth of her strength as she searches for new truths: truths about her parents and about her own identity as well. Oleander Girl is an expansive novel that weaves together many different emotions with vibrancy; there is at once a touch of romance and suspense, of family drama and the divide of social classes. While we are in America with Korobi, meeting the devious Mitra and his sweet wife, as well as the charismatic Vic and his uncle, we are simultaneously back in Kolkata where Korobi’s fiancé Rajat struggles against the machinations of an old flame, and where his family’s business – and maybe even their lives – face threats from within. Asif Ali, the Bose family’s Muslim chauffeur, maintains his own quiet life devoted to the family he serves, delighting in the antics of young Pia Bose who so reminds him of his sister; but when his devotion to the Bose family threatens both their well-being and his pride, he’ll do whatever is necessary to set things straight.
With such a plethora of different stories – each so wonderfully engaging that they all deserve mention here – the reader is kept continually on their feet, even with changes in narrative style throughout the novel; but Divakaruni’s studious attention to detail makes Oleander Girl a well-paced and sure-footed reading experience. Truly adept in her storytelling prowess, her elegant prose renders Korobi’s quest and the Bose’s familial drama into a colorful, dreamlike atmosphere that has a way of intensifying what is already a rich story. Kolkata comes to brilliant life, teeming with intricate details of sight and sound, while post-9/11 New York City recalls the unease and fragility of the time; seen through the eyes of Korobi, the vast differences between the Indian and American cultures are fascinating in their depiction. Divakaruni has a unique way of playing on the senses with words, bringing her readers most thoroughly into whichever world her narrative is drawing forth.
Not to be overlooked are the deeply empowering female characters with whom Divakaruni explores the height and depth of feminine strength across the generational divide; young Korobi lives on her own terms and owns her mistakes, while her grandmother finds the strength to face her husband’s secrets and the new trajectory of her life; little Pia Bose is a charming and fearless girl of privilege who will look convention and prejudice in the eye in order to call a servant her friend; and the Bose family matriarch, Rajat and Pia’s mother, is a brave example of a woman’s struggles and strengths as she endeavors the balance of being a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman. The results of Divakaruni’s efforts are four vastly different women, a collective homage to the infinite scope of human nature and an emotional study of what it truly means to be family. Profound and enlightening, Oleander Girl reaches into the heart of the human spirit and weaves a resplendent story of love, loss, discovery, and the ultimate search for self.
Title: Oleander Girl Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Genre: literary fiction Publisher: Free Press (hardcover; March 19, 2013) Release date: March 4, 2014 (trade paperback; Simon & Schuster) Source: Simon & Schuster (c/o) Buy the book: Amazon | Kindle | Barnes & Noble | BetterWorldBooks Connect with the author: Website/Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads