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The Mistress of Spices

by Chitra Divakaruni
Doubleday, 1st Anchor Books, 1997

One of the most delicious surprises in Mistress of Spices is how powerfully and profoundly it engages the senses. Open the pages of this book and you can see the golden glow of saffron, smell cinnamon lifting into the air, feel the dry crunch of bay leaves, taste ginger on the back of your tongue. The sensory feast enhances a story of tradition and change, as people of India immigrate to America to pursue a promised life of wealth, fame, and glory. Divakaruni adeptly leads us into the struggle of a centuries-old culture transplanted into a world that scoffs at tradition because it has none of its own.

In the crafting of the Mistress, the author shows a breathtaking depth of understanding of the sacrifices a priestess makes to serve her people. Trained by the First Mother, Tilo is a powerful Mistress, chosen by the spices and able to hear their spicesong and request their assistance in helping her people through their sorrows, pain, joy and desires. Many yearn for such a gift, but the burden is a heavy one, full of sacrifice, rules and restrictions.

Tilo must take on the appearance of an old woman, forever forsaking her vanity and never looking at herself in a mirror. She must never leave her store or the spices to venture into the city that lies beyond. She must never help any but her own people and she must never become too close to any who come to her. Throughout the story, Tilo is continually led to step deliberately out of the confines of her calling, as she encounters a 14-year-old boy who has joined a gang, a wife being battered by her husband, a grandfather consumed with grief that his granddaughter has chosen to marry outside of her culture and caste.

Pulled in too many directions by insistent hands, Tilo tries to determine whether her actions serve her own desires or the greater good. But underneath all of the confusion and plight lie the spices, sweet and bitter, pungent and spicy, utterly enticing in their glorious array of colors. I came away from this book wanting to know them all, personally, intimately, with passionate and reckless fervor, in the way of a Mistress.

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