Desai's exquisite, exotic 10th novel follows well-to-do European newlyweds who, in 1975, embark on a spiritual search in India. The husband, an Italian named Matteo, joins an ashram and becomes a fervent devotee of an aged, solitary guru known as ``the Mother.'' But to his skeptical German wife, Sophie, the Mother is not a fount of Eastern wisdom but a ``monster spider'' who catches ``silly flies'' like the deluded Matteo. After giving birth to a son and a daughter, both of whom she raises in the ashram, Sophie flees with her children to her in-laws' Italian villa. Vowing to unmask the Mother's true identity, she then sets off to Alexandria. There, through flashbacks, we meet Laila, a free-spirited teenager, half-Egyptian, half-French, who moves to Paris, rebels against her bourgeois aunt and joins an Indian dance troupe. Falling in love with Krishna, the troupe's charismatic, aloof leader, Laila tours Venice and 1920s New York before moving with him to India, where she later renounces dance for enlightenment and transforms herself into the Mother. The story closes with excerpts from Laila's India diary and with Sophie's confrontation with the wizened, aged Krishna, whom she tracks down in Bombay. Desai (Baumgartner's Bombay) magically evokes the collision and melding of cultures and ideas as she maps the hazards and rewards of spiritual quest. (Aug.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The author of Baumgartner's Bombay (LJ 3/15/89) offers another intriguing novel of India. During a seriocomic search for Eastern enlightenment, European newlyweds Matteo and Sophie encounter a living saint, the Mother. Matteo becomes a disciple, but Sophie resists, even as their stay in the Mother's model ashram stretches into years. As Matteo increasingly withdraws from a previously passionate marriage, Sophie vows to destroy her husband's spiritual obsession. To prove that the Mother is less than holy, Sophie explores the saint's past, beginning with rumors about a colorful dancing career. The quest leads Sophie along strange roads to even stranger characters in Egypt, France, Italy, and the United States. Back in India with assorted facts but few answers, she finds shocking news and a challenge waiting. An ambiguous denouement reiterates the haunting questions about sacred and profane love that echo throughout the book. Fine fare for thoughtful readers with a taste for exotic settings.-Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ., Arlington, Va.