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Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

You can take the girl out of India – but you can’t take India out of the girl. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has lived in the United States for many years but she still writes about India with passion and compassion, in her new novel Oleander Girl.

Oleander Girl is Korobi Roy, named for the flower her mother loved, as tough and resilient as she knew her daughter would need to be. Korobi has grown up without a mother or a father, raised by her grandparents she has lived a privileged, if sheltered, life. Expected to achieve academically and make a good marriage, Korobi has never disappointed her family. She is engaged to Rajat Bose, the only son of affluent parents who own fine art galleries in India and New York City. On the surface they appear to have it all, the parents beautifully groomed and members of the emerging wealthy class, and this marriage to Korobi will join their new money with the dignity of an old and respected family name.

But, secretly, the Bose family is struggling financially. The gallery they opened, with great fanfare and early success, is suffering. The reality of being non-white in America, especially in New York City, immediately after the tragedy of 9/11 is drastically different than it was before that awful day. The city changed, a popular Indian restaurant once a busy place providing a livelihood for many fails because “no one wanted to eat at a place named Lazeez”.

And there is unrest in India, in the factory that produces some of the fine art items that the Bose galleries sell, with conflict between the different sects spilling over into the workplace.

After the sudden and unexpected death of Korobi’s grandfather, on the night of her extravagant engagement party, secrets are revealed that both excite and terrify Korobi. She loves Rajat but they both now struggle to decide if indeed their love is strong enough to prepare them for a lifetime together. Rajat is an attractive, pleasant and caring young man, but he has been a spoiled boy and is only now forced to mature as his family situation reaches a crisis, and an old girlfriend seems prepared to force him to return to her.

Korobi knows she must follow her heart and seek answers to the questions she has about her parents, and to do so she needs to go to New York. There she will meet another man, who in other circumstances could have won her heart.

This novel is a bit Hollywood Bollywood, but has moments when it transcends – when Korobi visits the site of the Twin Towers, the site of such unbelievable tragedy but now a part of history that cannot be ignored in novels set in New York City.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in Kolkata, India, where much of this novel takes place. She came to the United States for her graduate studies, and now teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. She has won many awards for her poetry, short stories and novels. I expect that Oleander Girl will find it’s way onto book club lists in the coming year and make this author much better known.


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