I originally happened upon the movie adaptation of The Mistress of Spices a few years ago while perusing a going-out-of-business sale at my local Blockbuster (R.I.P.). I liked the film well enough that when I later visited the Half Price Books that is just a few doors down from that now-defunct Blockbuster, I saw the novel and snatched it right up. I knew it couldn’t be bad; the book is almost always better than the movie, right?
Of course. Both versions have their own merits, but I can honestly say that the book is so different from, and much better than, the movie.
The story revolves around Tilo, a woman who has basically lived a few vastly different lives within her short existence. Each phase of her life is so unique that she adopts a new name upon each transition, although I find it hard to remember any but “Tilo” since that is the name she uses for the longest time. She is born into an unremarkable family, but with the innate power to grant wishes. Her gift makes her family the most powerful one in the village, attracting the attention of some vicious pirates. They eventually burn her village to the ground and kidnap her, yet she becomes their pirate princess in time, taking on a new name. Eventually borne away from the pirates as well, not-yet-Tilo lands on a mysterious island and learns how to manipulate spices from an ancient crone called the First Mother. When we first meet her, she is already in what is basically her third incarnation – Tilo, a mistress of spices who has just woken up in a magically constructed shop, inhabiting the body of an old lady and communing with spices in order to help people.
Tilo does her best to cater to everyone who comes into her shop, letting the spices speak to and guide her in helping abused wives and unhappy, bullied children. She never leaves the confines of her shop, but is happy knowing that she is living a life of service, and will never want for anything. However, her whole world is turned upside down when a beautiful American man comes into the shop, seemingly able to see past the old lady facade to Tilo’s true self. Oooooh!
Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the movie version. It skips over some of the major plot points in the book, and while that’s not unexpected, it’s a little annoying. The star of the movie is the beautiful, young Aishwarya Rai – already a huge departure from the book, since Tilo is supposed to be a young woman trapped in an old lady’s body…. Thanks, Entertainment Industry. I mean, the movie is good, and if you want to see it, I’m sure you can find it somewhere. It’s fluffy and light and doesn’t capture the depth or beauty of the book, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.
I’ve only read one other book by the very prolific Ms. Divakaruni – Sister of My Heart – and I remember liking it, but this book is already much more memorable to me. Her writing style is very lyrical and sensual, and the manner in which she weaves the real world with the mystical one is reminiscent of Isabel Allende. The imagery in The Mistress of Spices is so incredibly rich and colorful, I can still see Tilo riding on the backs of sea serpents, sassing the First Mother during her magical spice training on a remote island, summoning the courage to go against the spices’ wishes in order to fulfill her own, scooping out mounds of turmeric, packaging up fennel seeds for a customer, and even standing nude, clutching a single red chili as the walls of her shop tumble down. So many images continue to reverberate in my mind, which to me is the sign of some seriously imaginative storytelling.
I also find Divakaruni’s approach to the immigrants’ stories fascinating. The entire book is populated with immigrants, mostly Indian families living in California. The struggles and horrors that I imagine many non-native people face in America are fleshed out in agonizing detail through the people that Tilo meets and helps. To be sure, there is no glossing over bullying, racism, and violence here. I had to close the book a few times because I was so upset by these fictional people’s very real experiences. But just as the awful experiences are laid out in detail here, so are the joyful, lovely, and loving moments. I became so invested in the characters that watching them fall in love, narrowly escape terrible situations, and find their own personal versions of happiness truly felt like such a triumph. I eagerly plowed through the last few chapters to see if this character had managed to leave her abusive husband, or if that one had found his way out of gang life. I felt like I knew them and only wanted the best things to happen in their lives.
The central love story involving Tilo is pretty compelling as well. Her struggle to reconcile her past choices with her wishes for the future makes up much of the book, and that struggle is so relatable. As Tilo begins to grapple with this newfound love and what it might mean for her lifestyle, she finds herself becoming less in tune with the spices (less objectively magical) and more human. Yikes, haven’t we all been there – trying to hold on to our personal truths while becoming engulfed in something/someone else. This was probably the most accessible part of the story for me, if only because I often get consumed with things (typically my working life and how much I hate the daily 8-5 grind) and only remember who I am and why I’m here in snippets. Tilo’s ability to balance it all and stay true to herself to the end was inspiring for me. Basically, this book spoke to me on another level, which, in my opinion, is what good writing is meant to do.
All in all, this is a wonderful and engaging book. It will remain on my shelf, until I loan it out to any friends in need of a richly detailed, satisfying story.
Fans of Isabel Allende and/or magical realism. And those who, like me, enjoy the story so much that they can’t quite bring themselves to give movie adaptations away . . . even if they are a little inferior.