Tilo, an immigrant from India, runs a spice shop in Oakland, California. While she supplies the ingredients for curries and kormas, she also helps her customers to gain a more precious commodity: whatever they most desire. For Tilo is a Mistress of Spices, a priestess of the most magical powers of spices.
Through those who visit and revisit her shop, she catches glimpses of the local Indian expatriate community. To each, Tilo dispenses wisdom and the appropriate spice, for the restoration of sight, the cleansing of evil, the pain of rejection. But when a lonely American ventures into the store, a troubled Tilo cannot find the correct spice, for he arouses in her a forbidden desire – which if she follows will destroy her magical powers.
I was initially dubious about ‘The Mistress of Spices’ – the blurb didn’t quite pull me in and I was unsure if the plot would focus on the magic of the spices or the romance between Tilo and the lonely American. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked – Divakaruni’s poetic and unique writing style is perfect for portraying the mystic nature and humanity of Tilo’s story. ‘The Mistress of Spices’ opens with Tilo’s early life as a prophetic child who is spoilt and feared by her family and village as a result of her power, in an unspecified time period in India. Until she travels to the Island and undertakes training Tilo is a loose cannon who unwittingly brings chaos wherever she goes. Even after completing her training, Tilo’s desire to help her customers leads her to rebel against the conditions of her power, which usually results in circumstances becoming worse instead of improving. I really loved that despite her good intentions Tilo’s magic with the spices is unpredictable and frequently works against her wishes. When she tries to control it, the result is often worse and the effects snowball to affect more of her unknowing customers. This is a step away from the usual portrayals of a protagonist being an all powerful magic user once fully trained. Tilo’s errors were both refreshing and relatable.
I do wish that Tilo’s time on the island and the magic of the spices were more fully explained. Tilo’s training at the Island is told in flashbacks, and usually related to an event that has occurred or will occur soon in the narrative. This is a shift from the linear narrative that was used until this point in the book. It felt like this technique was chosen so that the magic of the spices didn’t have to be explained. I’m confused at the decision – I feel that the flashbacks are either used to increase the sense of mystery, or to hide that Divakaruni didn’t fully develop the magical concepts she uses in the novel. Undeveloped magic laws are a pet peeve of mine and I wasn’t pleased to have questions about Tilo’s magic at the close of the book.
With that said, ‘The Mistress of Spices’ definitely focuses more on Tilo’s magic and relationships with her customers than on her romance with the lonely American named Raven. The relationship is never really developed, and Raven is used more as a representation of Tilo’s secret need to rebel than as a genuine love interest. I found it hard to believe that Tilo would choose Raven over the laws of the spices, as the relationship quickly showed flaws that Tilo herself identified to the audience.
Overall, ‘The Mistress of Spices’ was an engaging and enchanting novel, and I was completely charmed by rebellious but good hearted Tilo. If you’re looking for an epic romance then this book probably isn’t for you, but I recommend picking ‘The Mistress of Spices’ up if you’re in need of a little magic to while away an afternoon.