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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Book review
‘Oleander Girl’: searching for secrets across the ocean

By Valerie Ryan
Special to The Seattle Times

‘Oleander Girl’

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Free Press, 304 pp., $24

“Oleander Girl” is part mystery, part search, but mostly the story of a young girl finding herself and deciding where she belongs. Orphaned at birth, 17-year-old Korobi Roy is the beloved granddaughter and only child of a distinguished Kolkata family. She has enjoyed a privileged, very traditional upbringing in the home of her adoring grandparents.

The shadow over her life is a great silence surrounding her parents’ death. No one will talk about it. The only memento she has of her mother’s is a book of poetry — and tucked inside it is a love note.

The night before her engagement party, where she will become betrothed to the handsome and distinguished Rajat, only son of a wealthy business family, she sees an apparition in her room and knows that it is her mother. Suddenly, Korobi sees an ocean which her mother is pointing to, and she knows that there is something across that ocean that she must find.

On the night of the engagement party, Korobi’s grandfather dies of a sudden heart attack. His death brings to light things unknown: a dark family secret and the family’s strained financial circumstances.

In an overlong subplot it is also revealed that Rajat’s family has suffered financial reverses, has problems with the union whose employees work in their Kolkata warehouse, and that their New York art gallery is failing after 9/11.

Korobi, against the wishes of her fiancé and his family, leaves all that she has known in Kolkata to conduct a search that she is impelled to undertake before she is married. She finds the United States alluring, dangerous and puzzling in many ways. With the assistance of a private detective and his all too helpful nephew, Korobi crosses the country on her quest.

What she finds is a surprise that might complicate her betrothal to Rajat. In what feels like a somewhat hurried ending, all the plot lines (and there are many of them) are tied together in a way that we can only wish happened in real life. This book is not up to Divakaruni’s best — “Mistress of Spices” gets that accolade — but it is a many-faceted story of discovery.

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