A Most Excellent Adventure

"Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes" are a treasure that all can enjoy



India is a dreamscape to most people who have never been there. We imagine it as it's been described to us: a land of improbable beauty juxtaposed with hideous poverty. For author Betsy Woodman it takes on more of the form of a distant memory with the colors and edges feathered by the brush of time and the boldest strokes not images, but people and relationships. In fact, she's a New Hampshire native who spent much of her childhood in India in the 1950s when her father was a cultural affairs officer.

In Woodman's wonderful novel "Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes," a Scottish woman attempts to claim and restore an inherited home in a small town. She is gradually accepted into the local society of philosopher-shopkeepers and enterprising hangers-on. Their alliance is tested in a mission to save the town from being flooded by greedy developers and callous government officials. Along the way she ignores the pleas of her practical son (and, at points, her own common sense) and overcomes the opposition of Bhandu Sharma, an officious local constable with a penchant for making up new rules and regulations on the spot. Providing comic relief and a stream-of-consciousness commentary is Mr. Ganguly, Bibi's loquacious parrot.

Plot twists are few and far between, but there is delight to be found everywhere in Woodman's descriptions and dialogue.

"Comparisons are odorous," misspoke Shakespeare's Dogberry, but at least a couple are timely in this instance. Without seeming in the least derivative, Woodman's book calls to mind the movies of Wes Anderson ("Darjeeling Express" and "Moonrise Kingdom") in her reliance on characters to frame the action, and her romanticization-without-sanitization of India can't help but allude to the current hit film "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." Which is another way of saying this book would make a splendid movie, and readers may find themselves hoping for one just so they don't have to bid namasté and farewell to the special people they have grown to love while reading.

Fortunately, this book is the first of a series for Woodman and her publisher Henry Holt, so we can expect Jana Bibi and Mr. Ganguly to return to our bedside reading tables in due time.For now we say zindabad (long live) Jana Bibi and wish her more excellent fortunes!

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