Friday, January 24, 2014

Love Potion Number 10 by Betsy Woodman

When I was in grade school—never mind how long ago that was—I was fascinated by books set in other countries.  I was especially drawn to tales of life in the East: China, Japan, Korea, and India. I read all the books I could get my hands on by authors like Pearl S. Buck and Elizabeth Foreman Lewis.  (The latter caused some confusion.  I was reading along the shelf and the next book was something called Babbitt.   I kept waiting to for a character to head East but none ever did and I finally gave up on it.) I even  ventured into the non-fiction section to try I Married a Korean, Fifth Chinese Daughter, and—soberingly—John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

Anyway, several months ago I picked up Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes.  Set in India in 1961, it tells the story of Janet Laird, a Scotswoman by blood but Indian by preference, who has just found out she has inherited some property in the village of Hamara Nagar.  The full review is here, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book very much indeed and was very pleased to hear that another was in the works.

That sequel is Love Potion Number 10, and while the reviews I saw were lukewarm, I found the book to be almost as delightful as the first. We pick up nearly where the previous book left off.  Janet, called Jana Bibi by the locals, is making ends meet with her fortune-telling business, aided by the parrot Mr. Ganguly who selects tarot cards for customers.  While the house could do with some repairs both major and minor, things seem to be going well.  The recent publicity has generated interest in the village as a tourist destination, which is bringing in more outsiders—some of whom seem intent on changing just the things that give the place its charm.  To Jana’s surprise, some of these newcomers are old friends of hers from Bombay.  They’re sophisticated and wealthy, and are anxious to reconnect with Jana.  Since she has many happy memories of their time together, she’s only too pleased that they’re coming.  Their presence causes her to question whether she’s satisfied with her life as it is or if she should consider some changes—and perhaps even a new love.  Meanwhile, the local apothecary has whipped up a concoction he’s calling Love Potion #10 after the current popular song, and swears that it will cure almost anything, not to mention  bring love and happiness.  Also, the boy Tilku is apprenticed to the newspaper publisher, someone seems interested in parrot-napping Mr. Ganguly, and a devoted married couple is experiencing some family problems.

As with the first book, it was the warmth of the characters that drew me in.  The books have a large and colorful cast but not so much as to be too confusing.  Eccentricities abound but aren’t treated as silly.  Woodman spent some of her formative years in India, and it’s obvious that she  knows the local terrain and customs.  The descriptions are lovely, and evoke that particular era as well as the place. The books are sweet without being treacly.  I kept finding myself smiling at this or that, and becoming quite involved in the lives of the various characters.   At the end, I was left wanting more, which is a sign of a good book.  I’ll be looking forward to another visit with Jana Bibi and friends. I did miss hearing more about some of the characters from the first book, but I have no doubt they’ll turn up again.

 If it’s fast-paced adventure you crave, this is definitely NOT the book for you.  If, on the other hand, you like warm and amusing slice of life stories with likeable characters in an unusual setting, this is definitely a book you should try.  I would suggest that the books be read in order for a better appreciation of some events.

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