Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: The Mistress of Spices

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices has been on my TBR list for some time, so when Jess over at Desperado Penguin and I were looking for our next foodie simul-blog, I suggested it. It seemed to have at least three elements I love in a novel: a strong, female protagonist, a focus on food and a clash of cultures. And I was right. Divakaruni has written a very modern novel steeped in magic realism with interesting, likeable characters and a real multi-cultural vibe. I should have loved it. But somehow, the balance was just a bit wrong for me, like a curry that has too much cumin and not enough ginger to smooth it out. It was good, it was punchy, but it wasn’t totally satisfying.

I think one problem might have been the balance of the story arc. We meet Tilo, our mystical Mistress of Spices, in Oakland, California, a seemingly ancient spice vendor with an Indian grocery in a rough part of town. Tilo’s first person narration dispatches two former “selves” – her childhood as a sorceress and her young adulthood as a pirate queen – in just a few unflattering pages. So when she arrives at the Island of Spices to begin her long apprenticeship to learn the magic arts of healing through spices and become an immortal mistress charged with helping the people of the subcontinent wherever they are in the world, I wasn’t convinced that the selfless, diligent life of a Spice Mistress represented her real destiny.

The other problem was the spices themselves. Who knew condiments could be such demanding characters? Divakaruni emphasizes their individual properties by naming each of her chapters after different spices. But rather than giving them unique personalities or voices within the book, they function together as a kind of harping Greek chorus. First they love Tilo. Then they’re angry at Tilo. They do her bidding. Then they don’t. But Tilo is still Tilo. At the end of the novel, Tilo is still a fabulously gifted but restless woman who doesn’t listen. She didn’t listen to her parents. She wasn’t content on the pirate ship. Why would we think she could follow the rules of a collection of seeds and leaves somewhere on the Pacific Coast?

Tilo how little you have understood. From the deep the voice is a hiss, like water on a hot iron. Or is it a sigh? Like the waterfall the avalanche the forest fire, we do not hate. We only do what we must. p. 304

What saved the book for me was the very quirky, forbidden love story that winds through the novel. Raven, Tilo’s “American,” is the only one who can see through her ancient body to the beautiful, immortal woman underneath. His story is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. I loved Divakaruni’s musings on the expectations that people bring to multi-cultural relationships. And the story brought a great deal of tension to the end of the book, as I wondered whether or not Tilo could ever find a way out of the mess she’d made by interfering with the work of the spices.

Magic realism lovers and lovers of South Asian fiction will definitely find something to like in this title. It has a trippy, romantic feel that would probably be very appealing to chic lit readers – and indeed, my 16-year-old, chic lit-loving daughter adored this book. For me, it was a good but not great read. But it was a fun simul-blog, as it provoked some fun twitter chatter as we were reading. Why don’t you head over to the Desperado Penguin and her review?

This book also counts for two challenges, the South Asian Challenge and the Immigrant Stories Challenge. Thanks to Swapna and Colleen for hosting!


  1. This sounds interesting, but I'm not a big romance fan, so I'm not sure it's for me.

  2. I am intrigued by this one since part of it takes place in Oakland!

  3. Who knew condiments could be so demanding, indeed? You're right that's just what they needed - individual personalities. I totally agree about Raven: his story was the best part, the part where I started turning pages and wanting to know what would happen. The rest just kind of made me drowsy.

  4. @bermudaonion -- I would say it's very much a romance, so you may be right if that's not your favorite thing.

    @Amused -- Oakland is a very interesting part of the book. I think you might like this one, because the best part of it. And my daughter has liked so many of your recommendations, and also loved this book!

  5. @Jess -- I think this is the closest we've come on a review. Too bad we didn't both love it. What are we reading next? Your turn!

  6. Sorry this was a miss for you - I started listening to a book by this author (Palace of Illusions) but found myself struggling with that one too. But I think I might like the romance storyline in this one.

    Thanks for linking this review up for the Immigrant Stories Challenge!

  7. 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.


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col