By: Balli KaurJaswal
Published Year: 2017
Publisher: William Morrow
Summary (Provided by Goodreads): Every woman has a secret life . . .
Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a "creative writing" course at the community center in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.
Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.
As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s "moral police." But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all.
What I thought
In all honesty, I wasn’t much looking forward to this book club book. While the cover is very pretty, the summary didn’t appeal to me much. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the story.
Nikki is a 22 year-old British-Punjabi woman living in London. She recently moved out of her parent’s house and is living above the bar she works at, much to her family’s dismay. While her sister is deciding to take part in an arranged marriage, Nikki discovers that the temple is hiring for a women’s literacy class. Nikki ends up teaching what she thinks is a class to teach stories, but ends up being a class teaching widows how to write. When the widows decide that they are bored, they end up telling/writing erotic stories.
I enjoyed the Punjabi culture side of this story a lot. The widows telling their erotic stories was all about women taking back their power. I love stories about strong women, and in a culture where women traditionally defer to the men, it made it even more interesting. I also liked seeing the contrast of Nikki, a woman who grew up in England, compared to the traditional women who grew up in India and moved to England.
From a character perspective, I felt Nikki was a bit one-dimensional. She is written to me the modern contrast to the traditional women, which is great, but she doesn’t do much else. In fact, the way that she teaches the class makes zero sense. She has no qualifications to do so, her Punjabi is mediocre at best, and then when the class starts to becomes more about the widows’ stories she loses all control. With the exception of maybe the first 5 minutes of the first class, Nikki does zero teaching.
I also wish that there was more to the story of Nikki and her family. The beginning of the story has a lot of interaction with Nikki and her sister Mindi. I liked seeing their contrast of modern vs traditional within the same family, but it falls to the wayside once the erotic stories start. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the stories are included in this book. I liked the way that they were written into the story. they were their own separate entity, but they fit well where they were included.
In amongst the story of the widows and their class is a community mystery. Nikki manages, of course, to get herself into the middle of it. This part of the story is more of a slow burn, and added some mystery that gave the story a bit more of a page-turner feel. I didn’t mind this storyline, but it didn’t feel like it matched the other one. I got a bit of the sense that the author had two stories they wanted to write, and had to figure out a way to write them both.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought it would. It was a quick read and an enjoyable story. I am glad that it is one that we read for book club, because I look forward to discussing it with my friends.
What Book Club Thought
This was a fun book to discuss. The book club felt similarly in that we wanted more of the story to be fleshed out. A few people wished there had been more to the mystery plot line, while others wished the widows’ characters had been given more. Everyone enjoyed it, which always makes for a fun discussion. We had pretty similar opinions, but it was interesting to see that we each wanted something different from the book that we didn’t get. We did also discuss whether or not we felt as though this book would make a good movie, but decided that there was a lot of it that wouldn’t translate well.