The first thing that caught my eye about this novel was the title…because obviously. Haha. Then, after reading the description and realizing the title is literally what the book is about, I was really just beyond intrigued. Since I first saw it, the book has gotten much more popular, especially after it was chosen by Reese Witherspoon as one of her book club books. And though I really hate that that meant they were now printing copies of the book with that seal on the cover (I mean, come on, just let me have my gorgeous cover without extra BS on it), my feelings about reading it stayed about the same.
“The sensation of contact, the anticipation of a kiss or brush of —–‘s hand across her bare thigh – such moments were miniscule but they amounted to a lifetime of happiness.”
This book centers around Nikki, what we would consider a more “modern” daughter of Indian immigrants living in London. Although Nikki has spent most of her life trying to remove herself from the Sikh traditions that structured her childhood, she ends up, as a spur of the moment decision, taking a job teaching a creative writing class at a community center in the insular Punjabi neighborhood. Although there are a number of missteps and miscommunications, the class turns into a chance for these Sikh widows to express, in a safe space, the memories and fantasies they have all been holding in. As she gets to know them, Nikki comes to respect the widows and their traditions/experiences more, while simultaneously becoming more accepted into the culture and community. And that leads to her realizing there are some secrets in the community that are not only tragic and upsetting, but also potentially quite dangerous. However, her anger at the unresolved situations is not some that she can easily put away, and she ends up right in the middle of all the drama.
Let me start with the part I’m sure everybody is most interested in: the erotic stories. Personal opinion: I LOVED them. At base, I really enjoyed reading them for what they were – erotic stories. Although not all of them lined up with personal fantasies, I still got into the mix of cultural markers that made them unique and the fantastically cheesy euphemisms (mostly vegetable based) that appear universally in the romance genre. The variety in the stories told by the widows was also really entertaining. On a slightly more profound level, I so appreciated this exploration of sexuality for a group a people who are mostly overlooked in the conversation about sexual wants/needs: older women. Perhaps this is enforced, in this case, by the fact that these women are also living as part of a very traditional culture (many of which, worldwide, act as though sexual desire is not a reality for women, ever). But I’ll be honest, I don’t think there are any cultures that are particularly open to an older woman voicing her sexuality. So, in that sense, this book really addresses a universal theme. And I truly value and respect that message of female sexual empowerment, no matter what a women’s age, background, culture, religion or society (as a whole) thinks. Everyone deserves to experience pleasure.
Outside of that, this was a really fun read that included some deeper themes, related to Punjabi culture, in a way that maintained the lighter tone of the rest of the book. The side stories of Nikki and her sister looking for (or not looking for) a husband, and how they each go about it, were a great dichotomy. And the secrets that were kept by the community, focusing mainly on the importance of image and honor, even (in extreme cases) over life, gave a bit of insight into some deeply engrained cultural tenets. But at the same time, there were an equal number of messages that showed how these extremes were not really embraced by the larger community any longer, and though the importance of honor stays central, it is inappropriate to label an entire community based on its extreme members. That’s something that has always been true, as every culture/community has extreme members, but unfortunately is not usually fully believed/accepted in reality. In addition, the choices made by a number of characters, leaning either towards or away from tradition, really allowed a glimpse into some of the complications of life as an immigrant and trying to find that balance between where you came from and where you are now. And Nikki’s role is a perfect perspective to read this from, since she can most easily voice some of the concern/confusion that an outsider (which I can only assume most readers will be) might voice. And her changes of heart (in some cases) and standing strong in her outlook (in others), as she finds who she is and what her personal identity mix will be, is a well done, if not amazingly dynamic, central storyline to follow.
Overall, there were a great mix of lightness and seriousness in this novel, with the side stories really carrying the plot forwards smoothly alongside the development of the titular erotic story telling. Once I got into the story (which honestly didn’t take long), this was one of those books that I sped right through. A really perfect summer read.