Book Review: The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani – 4 stars

Don’t let anyone tell you that this book is formulaic and trite! I’ve read some other reviews and audiences are decidedly split: 1) Those who adore this book and 2) Those who thought it was predictable. I’m usually one to leave the opposing opinion alone but, in this case, I have to say, I heartily disagree with the latter group. And, I’m extremely sensitive to overused and predictable tropes!

I found The Storyteller’s Secret to be a rich, thoughtfully woven generational tale that touched my heart and completely held my attention. Badani frames the story from Jaya’s (a modern, married 2nd generation American of Indian descent) perspective and goes on to tell the story of three generations of Indian women (Amisha, Lena and Jaya). We learn early in the book that Jaya has suffered several miscarriages and its through the lens of that pain that we begin to learn about her family’s history.

Jaya’s relationship with her mother, Lena, is a loving but strained one. Her mother is attentive but closed off…Jaya never really feels that they know one another. Coincidentally, as Jaya’s marriage begins to fail, she learns that Lena has received a letter from her estranged grandfather in India. He is dying and wants to see Lena. Lena adamantly refuses. In her grief and loss, Jaya decides to go instead.

When Jaya arrives in India, instead of her grandfather, she meets the family’s servant (Ravi) who served her grandmother for many years. Her grandmother died when her mother was a small child and left Ravi entrusted with her story and a number of family secrets. Half of the book is told through Ravi’s story sharing with Jaya…the other half gives an account of Jaya’s current troubles. The time that Jaya spends with Ravi and the information she learns about the women who have preceded her changes the way Jaya sees her mother, her heritage and her modern life.

I love the way that Badani weaves Jaya’s current story into her mother and grandmother’s histories. She does an excellent job describing Jaya’s triumphs and pains: you can feel Jaya’s grief as you learn of the babies she has lost and how those losses have impacted her marriage. Badani depiction of the two older women during Gandhi’s time in India is equally powerful. Amisha and Lena come up against a number of very difficult decisions/circumstances in their lives and the quandaries that face are absolutely palpable to the reader.

Some of the reviews I’ve read about The Storyteller’s Secret focus on a claim that Badani gets some facts wrong about historical India, its culture and Hinduism. I have travelled to India and lived there for a short time but am no expert on the country. Unless you are intimately familiar with all of the details of the Indian culture (one reviewer complained that the book depicts a child begging as Jaya gets exits the airplane but asserts that there is airport security that would ensure that never happened), I feel strongly that any departures from reality don’t change the nature or quality of the story and probably only matter to those who feel the need for their fiction to never waiver from the absolute truth. To my mind, fiction is fiction and the author is permitted to take liberties!

I utterly enjoyed the female characters in the story. I thought they were rich and nuanced…brave and strong and vulnerable. I cared about what happened to them and appreciated Badani’s willingness to show us a variety of different women taking different approaches to the confines of their cultures. I fell in love with Ravi…he’s clearly a good man from the ‘untouchable’ caste who is wise, ambitious and incredibly funny. His relationship with Amisha is as touching as it is unexpected. Badani allows the two characters to become extremely close without feeling compelled to make their relationship an amorous one…that development, in my mind, would have been a difficult-to-believe trope!

Badani does push the boundaries of the traditional mores in Indian within this book. I wondered a few times whether or not, in 1930s India, Amisha could really have gotten away with some of the escapades she embarks on in the book. I also questioned whether or not Jaya could really have eaten in a restaurant with an ‘untouchable’ in modern India. Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, any liberties of fiction that Badani took with her story did not detract from its power for me. She has built a story that captured my interest and characters that I came to know and grew to care about.

I found the end of the book quite satifying, though it is has met with mixed reviews from folks online. Jaya is given an opportunity to both assist Ravi’s family and make some of her own dreams come true. She has the means and desire to do those things and takes action. Some have described her assistance as indicative of a ‘brown savior’ complex…but Badani’s depiction of Jaya throughout the book made me believe that her situation and circumstances were just right for her to be able to make those decisions. I finished the book feeling that, given the same set of circumstances and an equal amount of resources, I would like to think I would have made the same decision. When an author creates a character with whom you can really relate in that way, you know they’ve done something right!

I’ve read reviews that compared The Storyteller’s Secret to a Harlequin romance or a Bollywood soap opera. Perhaps I’ve not encountered either of those things enough to know better, but I don’t agree. I love fiction that contains a strong story, well-told and rich, nuanced and empassioned characters. Badani delivered all that, and more, with The Storyteller’s Secret!

To get your own copy of The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani, please click the link below:

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