Mythical and mystical, The Mistress of Spices is reminiscent of fables, magic, realism and fairy tales. The story Divakaruni tells is transporting, but it is her gift for metaphor that makes this novel live and breathe. You feel like you are involved with the characters; its pages as redolent as any freshly ground spice. The themes revolve around the age-old magic of spices, which are imbued with powers as complexly spiritual as India itself, the birthplace of Divakaruni and her fearless heroine, Nayan Tara (Tilo).
Born ugly and unwanted in a tiny village in India, Tilo is discarded by her family for the sin of being a girl. Resentful at being treated so shabbily, young Tilo throws herself on the mercy of the mythical serpents of the oceans, who deliver her to the mystical Island of Spices. There, she is initiated into the priestly sisterhood of Spice Mistresses, sent out into the world to help others by offering magic potions of fennel, peppercorn, lotus root, etc. She works her gentle magic in a tiny, rundown shop in Oakland, California, hidden within the body of an old woman. Here, Tilo devotes herself to improving the lives of the immigrant Indians who come to buy her spices–including an abused wife, a troubled youth, a chauffeur with dreams of American wealth, and a grandfather whose insistence on Old World propriety may have cost him his relationship with a beloved granddaughter. The spices are harsh taskmasters, and Tilo’s life is limited until her rebelliousness reasserts itself, and she becomes involved in the lives of her troubled customers.
Tilo is forbidden to step out of her little shop or get involved with anyone, but of course Tilo goes out and gets involved with her customers. She falls in love with Raven, the quintessential romantic hero–dashing, handsome, rich, and brooding–but Raven actually embodies nothing less than the great spirit of the American Indian.