Summer is the time for reading. So it was when I was small and joined the Vacation Reading Club each summer at the Woodstock (GA) Public Library -- so it is now when I am not teaching and can steal a lazy hour (or two, or three) stretched out on the sofa in the balm of Florida air conditioning. There's nothing like discovering a Wonderful Summer Book (WSB). Personally, I find myself drawn to stories set in hot climates these days: it's just too weird reading something about a cold place when it's 95 degrees out! So I was excited to learn of Julia Gregson's "East of the Sun," set in 1920s India, which already from the vivid-hued cover looked like it was going to be a WSB. First I spotted it at Target, then we got copies in our goody bags at the HNS Conference. It was fate.
And it's wonderful! "East of the Sun" follows three young British women as they make their way from England to India: Rose, the shy pretty girl hastily engaged to a soldier she barely knows and en route to be married; Tor (Victoria), the a-bit-plump, desperate-to-be-married girl happy to escape her overbearing mother; and Viva, the mysterious would-be writer with an enigmatic past, hired as their chaperone. The first part of the book takes place on the ship, where the trio meet other intriguing characters that you know will be important later in the story; the rest in India as each girl struggles to make her way in a new land. Their stories separate, come together, separate, come together, and the reader is taken to such places as Bombay, Poona, and Simla high in the mountains. While "East of the Sun" has romantic elements, it is not solely a romance story; Viva's story in particular brings more than a little mystery to the plot.
I appreciated most the careful attention to setting. At the HNS conference, "Setting as Character" was one of the panels...although the author panelists warned *against* making setting a character. I respectfully disagree. While one must be careful not to let setting overwhelm or overshadow the "real" characters, Place can be a player in its own right. "Gone With the Wind," for instance -- arguably, the city of Atlanta is very much its own character. So too in "East of the Sun," India seems to become a character as much as the three girls and similarly undergoes a form of character development. As the girls prepare for their voyage and experience their sea-crossing, we have only hearsay of India: Viva's childhood memories, Rose and Tor's imaginings what it must be like. But as the book unfolds, the reader sees more: first the India of the Raj as the British experienced it, then, slowly, the India beyond the Raj, through Viva's work in a slum orphanage. Gregson gives enough detail for us to know India as her characters do, but does not indulge in information dumps or purple prose. The way she uses setting is a superb writing lesson!
I highly recommend "East of the Sun" for anybody's summer reading fun. Enjoy it with a chai latte by your side for extra spice. (I'm hooked on David Rio Tiger Spice Chai myself...)