Divakaruni's first novel reads like a fable, as she blends Old World India with New World America. An aged woman, Tilo, an Indian immigrant, serves as the "mistress" of spices. She unravels her mythic past to set the stage for the present. Highly fantastical, it is necessary to suspend belief in the reasonable as Tilo describes her early life, training for this unusual vocation. Using traditional Indian spices, some with particularly healing properties and required rituals, to attend to the various physical and emotional ills of her customers, Tilo carries on a constant dialog with the spices, and each chapter introduces another spice and its uses. The language is often poetic, her descriptions full of visual impressions: "my cloak dragging in salt dust like a torn wing".
Divakaruni cleverly uses her story line as a vehicle for exposing the social stigma of immigration, as well as the ills of modern cities riddled with poverty and crime. Where it could be strident, instead the writer introduces her character's problems and complexities in the context of understanding. In the course of her conscientious ministrations, Tilo unwittingly falls in love with a man she calls the "American". She cannot fathom his motives in their mutual attraction, as she is "disguised" as an old woman and he is a man in his prime. Soon the present pulls as strongly as the past, and desire clashes with duty. Her serenity shattered, Tilo is forced to make life-altering decisions, agonizing over her choices; in the end, the direction is clear, without doubt.
With the aura of a fable, I often felt too aware of the transition from the believable to the unbelievable; the author's device should not have been so obvious. In her following work, however, particularly Sister of My Heart, Divakaruni is able to overcome such flaws without losing her power or her poetry.