Are there certain books that just appeal to you from the moment you read the jacket copy, charm you throughout the reading of them, and leave you with a happy glow when you've closed the covers on them? They aren't pulse pounding or edge of your seat reading, they are gentle, comfortable, and lovely and make you hope that the author is writing more just like them. Books like this are few and far between for me but they are always so appreciated when I do happen across one of them. Betsy Woodman's Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes is one of those books (and is in fact the first in a planned series). Just looking at the book gives me a contented feeling.
Janet Laird, a widowed Scottish woman, who has spent much of her life in India and feels most at home there rather than in her native Scotland, inherits her grandfather's home in the small northern Himalayan hill town of Hamara Nagar (translated as "Our Town") and determines that she will go and live there now that she is no longer needed as a music teacher to a nawab's children and despite her rather uptight son's admonitions that she come home to Scotland to live as she's in her late fifties and, in his opinion, too old to live alone. But Jana Bibi, as she is called in India, has a bit more steel in her spine than her son suspects and she chooses her own course without regret, a course that takes her to the Jolly Grant House, new friends, and happiness.
When Jana, her maid Mary, and her garralous parrot Mr. Ganguly first arrive in Hamara Nagar they discover that the Jolly Grant House will require quite a bit of work to be made habitable, starting with evicting the monkeys who currently live throughout the home. As Jana works on her house, she makes the acquaintance of her neighbors and other various townspeople who end up taking her into their hearts and lives. She meets the local tailors, the owner of the local Treasure Emporium, a bagpipe playing Gurkha security guard, a young mute boy and his mother, the rigid and less than pleasant police chief, the editor of the local paper, some of the girls from the private school in town, and an American ex-pat who might or might not be CIA. With this colorful cast of characters, Jana goes about righting her house and starting a life in this appealing town. When she has settled in some, she discovers that the government has plans to flood their small town to create a dam. In a bid to prevent this, Jana sets up shop as a fortune teller so that the town has a bit more appeal for tourists, a measure the government is sure to use when finalizing a location for the dam. Helped by her chatty and entertaining parrot, Jana's shop is a hit and she becomes a vital part of the town's life.
Aside from the threat of being flooded, the novel focuses more on the everyday domestic dramas of life in a small town and the assorted people who live and love there. The characters are eccentric, quirky, and delightful. They are developed in such a way as to be respectful to their customs, wishes, and dreams and each of them is very definitely an individual. Jana herself is sweet and as she slowly discloses her past, her quiet insistence on living her life as she chooses now becomes clearer and more understandable to the reader. The setting is well-written and beautifully captures the spirit and feel of India. The connection and welcome of the place is very realistic and just about everything about this lovely book made me want to visit India again. If you are looking for a feel good novel with a touch of the exotic blended with a universal kindness and acceptance, this is the book for you.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.