Loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sonali Dev’s new book is enriched with culinary allusions, replete with the aromas of tea and spice and based in a modern South Asian family (of royal lineage), as was her prior Austen revamp. In Recipe for Persuasion, Ashna is Anne, still adrift 12 years after her father’s death, and struggling to continue running his restaurant despite paralyzing anxiety that makes it impossible for her to cook anything but his outdated recipes, despite her years of elite training in Paris.
Unlike Anne, Ashna’s mother is still alive, but has been mostly absent from her life, working as a pro-feminist advocate in India; she mixes respect for certain parts of traditional culture with otherwise very progressive views, as embodied in her wearing of saris:
She had fought the blameless six yards of fabric so hard during her initial years in Sripore, and then wearing them had felt like claiming herself during her time in America with Bram. Why did women do this, use clothing as a tool in their battle against society? Because you took whatever tools you were given, that’s why.
Despite her anxiety in the kitchen, Ashna’s world is suffused with food and aromas. She notes of another couple: “Ah, fresh young love! It was like the smell of cumin roasting in butter: you couldn’t hide it for anything.” Ashna’s particular skill is revealed to be blending tea, which also provides metaphors for her emotional journey.
After her call with China, Ashna had obsessively mixed and sampled tea blends, labeling them things like Apocalypse Averted and Nowhere to Run. Then she’d settled into the couch to think with a cup that she’d finally gotten right (Hidden Strength)…. With so much spinning in her head, it was a miracle she had fallen asleep.
Ashna’s aunt and cousins are her closest family and have been remarkably understanding of her trying to sustain what appears to be a failing enterprise. Through a very modern attempt to build buzz for the family restaurant (not to spoil any of the Bollywood-inspired twists) Ashna is suddenly reunited with her highschool sweetheart, Rico. He isn’t aware that the father who disapproved of their relationship is gone, and in the aftermath of their breakup he has become a football (soccer) star for Manchester United. Their romantic trajectory is in the best tradition of “chick-lit”. What gives this book more depth is the thawing of Ashna’s relationship with her mother, and the slow reveal of the circumstances that led to their estrangement, invoking the theme of persuasion in her mother’s life (through arranged marriage) as well. Sprinkled through the book are glimpses into the glamor of palace life, that balance some of the heavier issues:
She touched a dot of rosewater behind her ears. There wasn’t actually going to be any kind of real cooking happening today as far as she knew, so a hint of perfume wouldn’t hurt. Plus, the special rosewater that was extracted at the Sripore palace was designed specifically not to interfere with your normal olfactory functioning like the oil-based perfumes they sold in stores.
Dev deliciously conjures up the meals Ashna and Rico work on, and make the reader long for a custom tea blend as she seems to have for each dear person in her life, and occasion:
As he’d talked about his father’s chops, she’d imagined exactly how she wanted them to taste. An overtone of garlic and lemon and an undertone of mint. The rice would be simple, in keeping with Brazilian tradition, but she’d liven it up with fried onions, cashew nuts, whole black cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick. All she wanted was to create something that tasted like Rico’s childhood, combined with their future together, and it felt like she was flying. Just like with her teas, she knew exactly what she wanted to taste and she knew exactly how to layer ingredients to coax out those flavors, those feelings.
Aside from minor slips—a curious reference to Mrs Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility when Persuasion is invoked, and a reference to orthopedic gallbladder surgery with otherwise accurate representation of Ashna’s neurosurgeon friend—Dev’s latest book is an appetizing delight.