This light book set in Vizag, India skirts perilously close to the edge of being boring, but just manages to avoid it because of the character of Aruna. Aruna is the office assistant in the Marriage Bureau, a venture set up by Mr. Ali so he would have something to do in his retirement. Aruna is also the only character with any complexity in a book full of cardboard people.
As the story progresses we meet various clients who come into the Marriage Bureau and interact with Mr. Ali and Aruna. We get a very detailed accounting of how the time passes in the business, what the weather is like, and what some of the customs are in Southern India.
Many of these customs revolve around class and economic status. Being rich is obviously very important, enough so that a separate marriage bureau is a necessity. A critical part of the equation is the bride’s dowry. For the parents of a potential bride or groom, marriage is a means of transferring wealth. The bride is the barter, and the dowry can include, besides the wedding costs, large stipends, and in one case, even the promise of a scooter.
Most clients are particular as to caste and to religion. (For example, there are four main castes among Hindus and then a variety of subcastes. It is important to keep matches within them. Muslims do not have a caste system but prefer other Muslims.) Once those prerequisites are met, clients are a bit more flexible as to location, occupation, looks, and so on.
Traditionally, the bride and groom go to live with the groom’s parents. If something happens to the son after the wedding, his parents can drive the daughter-in-law out without a nickel, and often do. Getting along with the mother-in-law is probably the new bride’s biggest hurdle.
There is a small amount of dialogue in the book about the evils of focusing on money, and the danger of losing your soul in the pursuit of wealth. Other mini-sermons touch on the importance of families, and the reasonableness of religious tolerance. But these themes appear so quietly and unobtrusively, if you blink while reading, you might miss them.
The level of prose tends to lack sophistication. There is an almost stilted, robotic quality to some of the dialogue. Most characters are not well fleshed out.
In sum, the book does have a bit to offer, particularly on Indian culture, but I think the author needs to develop more as a writer.
Published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2009