In The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni wraps a fantastical premise around the experiences of Indian immigrants in the USA. Though Tilo appears to be an elderly woman living in Oakfield, California, she is in fact a Mistress of Spices, able to give her store’s customers the spices they need to achieve happiness. She has devoted herself to the spices, who have granted her immortality and magical abilities but will punish her harshly if she pursues desires of her own.
The fantasy aspects are original and the story has some poignant moments, but The Mistress of Spices is neither as rich nor as surprising as the premise suggests. Tilo is blatantly unsuited to her position: she’s vain and passionate, becomes attached to others too easily, and longs for earthly love. It’s just a matter of time before she surrenders to temptation.
Tilo’s romance with the mysterious Raven shows a strong chick-lit streak and is harder to accept than the novel’s magical elements. Raven is very wealthy and attractive, and can clearly see that Tilo is not as she appears, which makes it all too perfect and too easy. Their relationship does have some serious conflicts beyond the obstacles of the jealous spices and Tilo’s illusory body. However, these are not the story’s focus. At the point where the characters do acknowledge them, the plot whips back and forth so abruptly that the novel’s conclusions, both literal and philosophical, aren’t given enough room.
Meanwhile, the writing too often fumbles in its attempts to create sensuous imagery. The metaphors are frequently forced. From these smaller details to its underlying structure, Divakaruni’s novel fails to live up to her her insights and imaginative ideas.