I started this book because the title made me giggle every time I looked at it. The summary sounded interesting and I always enjoy something that's different from what I typically read. This was definitely a departure for me but one that I'm thoroughly pleased I decided to make.
I expected something funny and light-hearted which is, mostly, what I received. However, I was surprised that, from the beginning, there was a vein of insidiousness winding it's way through the story. Though the title and the subject matter lead you toward something fun and exciting, there was more to this book than I was anticipating.
We begin our story by meeting Nikki, a young British & Punjabi woman living in London. Her relationship with her family is strained after she drops out of law school and moves out of her mother's apartment, something young women in her community are not expected to do until marriage. Despite that, she and her sister still talk often. Nikki feels aimless after leaving college and has been working at a pub. When posting a marriage flyer at a temple for her sister (who is seeking an arranged marriage), she sees an advertisement for a job at the local community center, teaching Punjabi women how to write stories. Nikki applies and interviews for the job so is very pleased to be hired, despite her lack of experience. However, when the time comes to teach the class, she realizes that the Punjabi widows who have come to learn how to write stories also need to learn how to write. Feeling frustrated, she thinks about quitting but wants the experience to include on her CV.
During one class, she comes into the room to find that one of the younger women is reading aloud from the erotica book Nikki had purchased for her sister as a joke. Embarrassed, she explains why she has the book and tries to bring the class back on track. The widows, however, have another idea. Their husbands have died and they are lonely. They miss intimacy and sex. To Nikki's horror, the women start sharing erotic stories with one another. Some are stories about their own lives, some are from their imaginations, and some are ideas gleaned from the late night soft-core movies they've discovered on cable. Despite her original discomfort at hearing these otherwise conservative women discuss their passions, Nikki begins to realize that sharing these stories is good for the women. It makes them feel strong and makes them willing to seek the passion they so desire in their own lives. The stories start to spread around the community and more women begin to seek out Nikki's class.
Not everyone is happy that the widows are opening up and learning more about themselves though. A group of ultra-conservative young men in the community with no jobs and nothing better to do have started harassing women and men who are not behaving as traditionally as The Brothers believe a respectable person should. Women who are out too late, enjoying time with friends in mixed gender groups, or who aren't covering their head have been assaulted and attacked. In addition to the fear mongering by The Brothers, the widow of a community religious figure is blackmailing people in exchange for "prayers" concerning the immoral or unfavorable behaviors being held against them.
As the story progresses, we begin to see exactly what kind of threat the women's classes are to the traditionally conservative community in which they live. The women are beginning to stand up for themselves, to fight back against the injustices wrought by The Brothers. The men in the community are confused and worried. They have typically never had to worry about things like this from the elder women in the community; only the younger, more British, girls give them problems regarding authority, sexuality, and education. When Nikki begins to unravel community secrets about the death of her boss' daughter, she draws the attention of The Brothers. The concern about the women's classes burns into hate and fear.
Interwoven between the erotic stories the widows tell and the mystery of what happened to her boss' daughter is Nikki's love story. She meets a man, at the temple of all unlikely places, and is swiftly falling for him. They are incredibly happy together and Nikki is coming to terms with loving someone of whom her family would actually approve. However, Jason starts to act sketchy, taking quiet, argumentative phone calls before leaving briskly. This happens several times before he leaves and doesn't return for weeks. When he does, Nikki must decide if she wants to listen to what he has to say or if his bailing is something she can't forgive.
The story ends in a way that was entirely unexpected though the author did sprinkle clues about it throughout the story. I was just too absorbed to try to put together a mystery ending. We reach a satisfying conclusion for every thread of the story and I finished the book feeling entirely pleased.
While being funny and enticing and entirely engaging, this book was also a social critique about the way women are treated in the Punjabi community and how immigrants are treated in the United Kingdom. The book mostly takes place in the largely Indian community of Southall, London and most of it's characters are Punjabi Indians and immigrants (or from a family of immigrants). I learned a lot about their culture through this book. Tradition and community are extremely important to the characters we meet. Arranged marriages are still fairly common, though much different than our stereotypical idea of what that means. Women are expected to serve in their in-laws homes after marriage, some are pressured to give up their jobs entirely. Men and women still wear traditional dress and speak Punjabi in their homes. Because of these things, they have been made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in London as a whole. Their community is tight knit and the gossip can be insidious. Your standing in the community is a very important aspect of an individual's social status. By the end of the book, the author makes it clear that while they support the idea of community and cultural tradition, they do not support the oppressive forces that are often inextricably tied to religion. Especially those traditional aspects of religion that force women to serve men and put their own needs, desires, and passions at the back of the line in support of their husband, father, brother, or son.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who loved A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.
Mary Prewitt: Owner, Ruthless Reader