Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni threads the story of a young woman’s awakening to herself and to her heritage through the buzzing streets of Kolkata, the quiet pigeon-lined halls of an ancient temple, and the crushing activity of American cities (New York City, Boston and San Francisco). The trail that Korobi Roy, the Oleander Girl, must follow to learn who she is and where she belongs is fraught with coincidences and mistakes, much like our own lives. We watch as Korobi chooses a Prada pantsuit over a traditional silk sari, as she bites the bittersweet cardamom seeds between her teeth. Her prayers are to the goddess, and her obedience is unwaveringly to tradition and Indian culture.
"Although primarily a Bildungsroman, OLEANDER GIRL has something for almost everyone: a threatening car chase, sweet unrequited love, fabulous wealth and glamorous parties, wildcat strikes and picket lines.... There will be a sigh of appreciation and a nod of understanding when the last page is turned."
By the end of the story, though, both Korobi and her grandmother, Sarojini, deal with family heirlooms and family issues in matter-of-fact, realistic ways. “They are stones and metal, not human beings,” Sarojini says. She is willing to sell the “gorgeous dowry pieces with classic designs that goldsmiths no longer knew” to save the family she loves, not unlike our own grandmothers, perhaps showing Divakaruni’s understanding of the nature of aging and how family grows more and more important.
The first chapter of OLEANDER GIRL is a masterpiece --- a Dickens novel moved forward 150 years to post-9/11 2002 and eastward 5,000 miles to Kolkata, India. There is a full set of characters: Korobi, the orphaned Oleander Girl; her fiancé, Rajat; his powerful, manipulative family; the tradition-bound grandparents who adore her; and the array of servants who have helped raise her. There is cultural strife. We see the deep-seated discord between the Hindus and Muslims, the undercurrents of violent racial bias on both sides of the world, and the continuing struggle for financial success. The tension begins with Korobi’s dream of her dead mother and continues to build as her well-orchestrated life is revealed to be quite out of tune. And finally there is promise of change and renewal. Rereading the opening pages just reaffirms how beautifully Divakaruni creates a solid framework for the entire story laced with lush, exotic detail.
Korobi trusts in the love she sees in a scrap of an unfinished letter from her mother to her father. This correspondence gives Korobi a beautiful dream of what might be; she wants this kind of love with Rajat, and part of her longing is the search for her own happiness. She grows to trust in herself, which she really has always done, but now acknowledges it. She also must accept the fact that “(t)he universe had a strange sense of humor,” a truth that the reader acknowledges as well. Her discovery of where she belongs in the world is not completely predictable; the forces that work in opposition to her happiness are less about Korobi and more about the status quo of Indian women and daughters.
The final piece in Korobi’s puzzle is understanding her own name. "Korobi" means "oleander flower," which she knew is very beautiful, extremely poisonous, and must be treated with caution. She also was aware that her mother chose the name. Not only does she find the vision in a California moment that her mother gave her in the opening dream, she also understands and fulfills her name’s promise.
Although primarily a Bildungsroman, OLEANDER GIRL has something for almost everyone: a threatening car chase, sweet unrequited love, fabulous wealth and glamorous parties, wildcat strikes and picket lines. The world of Kolkata, although beautiful, rich and captivating, doesn’t seem so foreign as we might think. There will be a sigh of appreciation and a nod of understanding when the last page is turned.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on March 22, 2013