The novel opens with eighteen year old Korobi Roy's engagement to Rajat Bose. Korobi has been raised by her grandmother, Sarojini and her grandfather, Bimal Prasad Roy, of whom Korobi is very fond. Korobi's grandparents raised her after her mother Anu died during childbirth. Her father had died only months earlier in a car accident.
Korobi has always secretly desired that her mother would appear to her. Such apparitions are considered an omen of impending disaster. The night before her big engagement party, Korobi has a dream in which her mother appears to her. She cannot speak but insistently points to the ocean with the setting sun. Korobi understands that her mother wishes her to travel across the ocean to find something and when she awakes, she knows she must find out what the dream means.
Korobi has only known Rajat for a mere three months, after meeting him at a party. Rajat had just broken up with Sonia, a girl who is rich and well connected. Korobi is quite different from Sonia who leads the life of a wealthy party girl. She comes from a traditional family and has led a protected life, having been sent to a boarding school.
After the engagement ceremony, Korobi is stunned to hear her grandfather ask the Boses to agree to have Rajat and Korobi marry in three months. The Boses agree to this, but Korobi is furious with her beloved grandfather for not asking her first. They quarrel with both of them saying things they regret and Korobi leaves for the big engagement dinner. Later on that evening, her grandfather has a heart attack and dies.
The death of Bimal causes great grief to both Sarojini and Korobi. When Korobi accuses her grandmother of not having loved Bimal, Sarojini tells her that she has never been forced to keep family secrets as she has done. She then reveals to Korobi the truth about her mother and father.
This unexpected revelation turns Korobi's world upside down because she now believes that she must go to America to find her father. She feels this is the message her mother was attempting to impart to her in her dream. But going to America will have real personal repercussions for Korobi, Rajat and his family, as well as for Sarojini.
It turns out that both families are doing poorly financially. For the Bose family, they are counting on the financial backing of an important Indian politican, Mr. Bhattacharya, for their failing art gallery in New York. When Korobi visits Rajat's mother to explain to her why she must go to America, her future mother-in-law explains just how important Mr. Bhattacharya is to her family's failing gallery business. His constituents are very traditional, frowning on those who marry outside the Hindu faith as Korobi's mother did and now as Rajat will be doing, since Korobi is half American. Rajat's mother, Maman advises Korobi against going to America to find her father, to marry her son quickly and then everything will blow over. They will still have the financial backing they so desperately need.
But Korobi cannot do this. This would dishonor her mother, who was so terribly wronged by her own family. She offers to break off her engagment to Rajat, which infuriates both Mrs. Bose and Rajat. However, Rajat who is struggling to establish himself in his family's business and to cope with his ex-girfriend's obsessive behaviour recognizes that this is important to Korobi. So as a compromise, he offers her one month overseas to search for her missing father, which Korobi accepts.
Korobi, with little knowledge of America and limited funds, flies to New York to begin a month long search for her long lost father. It is a search that will forever change her life. With the help of an American man of Indian descent, Vic, who is working with the private detective Korobi hired, she is is encouraged to continue when the situation is bleak. During this time both Rajat and Korobi will see their blossoming love tested to the limit, ties between family and friends strengthened and more family secrets uncovered.
Dvakaruni has written a coming of age novel to relish. It is rich in characters, has an interesting storyline that is filled with conflict, intrigue and romance. Korobi's search for her father is woven in a tapestry of narratives told by Korobi, Rajat, Sarojini, Mrs. Bose, and various other characters. These narratives all come together for a very satisfying ending.
Korobi is an endearing, strong character who despite many obstacles perseveres to the end. Korobi must cope with a new culture and the newly resurrected prejudices in post-9/11 America. As she learns more about her heritage, Korobi must come to terms with how this will affect her life back in India and her relationship with her friends and family. Her steadfast loyalty to Rajat, despite his secretive nature about Sonia, helps him change his life for the better.
Rajat is an interesting character, extremely conflicted and struggling to develop his own identity within his family and their business. His inexperience leads him to make bad choices, but within himself is the desire to be a better person for Korobi and to do right by both his parents and their employees. His journey is one of maturity and self knowledge. He quickly comes to realize that he is not worthy of Korobi and seeks to become a better person.
Oleander Girl touches on the racial tensions in both American and India in the early 21st century. As mentioned, there is the prejudice against Muslims in America after the terrorist attacks of 2011 which spill over into the Indian community. Dvakaruni also mentions the riots in India between Muslims and Hindus and the racial tension in the Bose's warehouse. One can appreciate just how hard it must be to navigate between two races with such in-grained hatred towards one another.
Another strong theme in the novel is the conflict between old India with its strict caste system and customs surrounding marriage and honor and the new India struggling to modernize. This clash is seen between the Bose and Roy families and is mirrored also between Vic and Korobi in America.
Oleander Girl is a captivating read that will appeal to those who enjoy novels exploring culture and identity, with a bit of romance and suspense thrown in.
Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
New York: Simon & Schuster 2012