When I was first offered this book to review, I was concerned that my ethnic heritage might make me more critical than most in the reading and reviewing, but then remembering that one of my all-time favorite romance novels is Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye, I felt that I would be able to do it justice . Perhaps I should have heeded my first instincts after all.
The story itself is very provocative, especially for the time period that it is based in. A young Sophie befriends an Indian servant and has a fabulous time exploring all the secret corners of the palace where they both live. A single moment in time and a single act changes that friendship to an undying love and Sophie into an unwed mother. The secret is soon revealed and they are separated by their respective families. Eventually Sophie returns to England and carves out a good life for herself, while Jag, after a series of adventures, finds a place for himself in the bosom of his mother’s family. Their love story might have ended there, but Sophie comes back to India ten years later as the wife of a young, ambitious British diplomat.
There are so many parts of the book I enjoyed – Sophie’s visit with the royal ladies in the Zenana, her relationship with her father and his love and support even in very challenging circumstances, the British ladies from the palace who befriend the young Sophie and try to keep her safe from her mother’s emotional cruelty, the Indian retainers who work for her father and their love and loyalty which epitomizes the almost disappearing relationships with beloved retainers who were a part of one’s family.
There are many geographic and cultural inconsistencies in the book which constantly bogged me down and distracted me from the essence of the story, most particularly Jag and his father’s journey across areas that were hard hit by the devastation from the partition of India. Their experiences are harrowing, and yet all I could focus on is why were they experiencing these? And how did these add to the story? Don’t get me wrong, the historical detail is very well narrated but……
Geographic details are very scanty in this book, but we do know that Sophie’s father settled in the South of India and Jag on the north western tip of India. It is a bit surprising that Jag is able to see an announcement in the local newspaper announcing Sophie’s marriage, given the geographic distance between the two. Even more inconsistent is the fact that Sophie’s father’s household retainers provide him with gossip about Sophie’s return, including her address when he journeys there. Promptly Jag shows up with a packet of money to bribe his way into a position as the night watchman in the security compound where Sophie lives.
I think I might have been able to ignore some of these distractions if the story had ended differently. Jag loves Sophie so much that he gives up his life and family to come to Delhi to be near her, yet watches her from afar, especially when her husband mistreats her. He neither comes to her rescue nor approaches her, and yet the first time Lucien, her husband, is threatened he steps in to save him – a Lucien who is clearly a drunken womanizer and not at all a fit husband for any woman, let alone Sophie. I just do not get what the author wanted to say to the reader.
I’m aware that this book has gotten rave reviews and comments from many people, but, unfortunately, try as I might, I cannot make myself feel the same. The backdrop is beautifully rendered, but the story itself just does not live up to its potential.
London, 1957… In a bid to erase her past and build the family she yearns for, Sophie Schofield accepts a wedding proposal from ambitious British diplomat, Lucien Grainger. When he is posted to New Delhi, into the glittering circle of ex-pat high society, old wounds begin to break open as she is confronted with the memory of her first, forbidden love and its devastating consequences.
But this is not the India she fell in love with ten years before when her father physician to a maharaja, the India of tigers and scorpions and palaces afloat on shimmering lakes; the India that ripped out her heart as Partition tore the country in two, separating her from her one true love.
Sophie never meant to come back, yet the moment she steps onto India’s burning soil, she realises her return was inevitable. And so begins the unravelling of an ill-fated marriage, setting in motion a devastating chain of events that will bring her face to face with a past she tried so desperately to forget, and a future she must fight for.
Read an excerpt.