Title: The Mistress of Spices
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Release Date: February 17, 1998
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Tilo is a mistress of spices, trained by the Old One in India. She can access the magic of spices such as turmeric, fenugreek, and cardamom, but for this knowledge, she must pay a price – she is a young, vibrant woman trapped in the body of an old crone. She decides to set up shop in Oakland, California, but is forbidden from leaving the store. Her mission is to help her patrons, but not become overly involved in their loves. But when Tilo meets a young man named Raven, she can’t help but wonder if the sacrifices she has agreed to make are worth it.
The Mistress of Spices is an incredibly strange book, in the most wonderful of ways. Through her main character of Tilo, Divakaruni is able to explore stereotypes, cultural relations, immigrant clashes, and more. Though Tilo’s story takes center stage, there are many secondary players that Tilo tries to help over the course of the story. The plotline that spoke to me the most was Geeta’s clashes with her parents and grandfather. Geeta’s grandfather abhors the fact that she works in a professional setting with men, staying late and putting herself in situations that no good Indian girl should be in. However, Geeta’s parents insist that she understands their values, and that they will not put artificial constraints on her based on Indian standards because she is trustworthy. But when Geeta’s grandfather tries to arrange her marriage, the whole family is in for a shock. Tilo steps into this situation, trying to mediate between grandfather and granddaughter, bringing them to a place of mutual understanding and trust.
There is also a supernatural element to The Mistress of Spices, and it shouldn’t work, but it does so beautifully. Tilo is from old world, superstitious, inflexible India. She has accepted that she cannot have a life of her own because she is devoted to the spices. But when she counsels her patrons to have flexibility and understanding, trying to help them with their difficult situations, it reminds the reader that Tilo has none of these benefits. When she meets Raven, and he sees through her old shell to the young, vibrant woman she is underneath, she can’t help but realize all that she has agreed to forsake. What use are the powers of the spices if Tilo isn’t free to do something so simple as love another person?
The Mistress of Spices is a book to be read slowly and savored. Divakaruni’s writing is really breathtaking; I found myself marking passage after passage, blown away by the lyrical prose. The words are liquid and flow over each page, softening everything, making it all just a little more beautiful. I’ve been a fan of Divakaruni’s writing for some time, but this was just beyond words. The descriptions of the spices are gorgeous; readers can imagine the spice and sweetness melting in their mouths, and can see the stark colors in their minds through Divakaruni’s vivid descriptions.
This novel was actually made into a movie starring famed Indian actress Aishwarya Rai and Dylan McDermott, and I actually saw the movie before reading the book. While I enjoyed the movie, I felt like it was lacking something, and after reading the novel I understand why. The movie had to strip away the layers of complexity, the details of Tilo’s past and her old woman appearance among others, in order to create a marketable film. The book, however, is beautiful and wise; if you’re in the mood for a novel to savor, The Mistress of Spices is a great choice.