The recent recognition that Ruth Jhabvala has gained from her novels, short stories, and film scripts justifies this sometimes compelling, sometimes irritatingly polemic book. Laurie Sucher is at her best when she analyzes individual works; I question the adamancy of her feminist stance as she ignores the context of the work.
It is undeniable that Jhabvala's books mark the stages of her own journey through life—as the victim of political upheaval; as an outsider looking in on an alien culture; and as the wife of a man who himself belongs to a minority within a culture that makes agonizing demands on the individual. Sucher is comprehensive in her analyses of the quests towards "the shedding of illusion" that Jhabvala paints with wit and irony.
This book is a concentrated study of four books written after 1972, two set in India, and two away from it. Their themes are more serious than the earlier ones, more direct in their treatment of love between women and between homosexual men, and more pessimistic in the portrayal of contemporary self-interest. Each examination is preceded by commentary on earlier stories that introduce the context and themes developed in the novels.
A major section of the book deals with Heat and Dust, the work best known in the U.S. Although there is a valuable analysis of Jhabvala's indebtedness to E. M. Forster for significant names and even descriptions, Sucher's determined feminist approach limits her effectiveness. One cannot ignore the elements of the culture within which the novel is set despite her confession at the first of the book that her "perspective is probably more politically feminist than her subject's." The struggle of adaptation to and survival in an alien culture compels us away from a single point of view. For example, "Desecration," the story that leads into Heat and Dust, does not simply depict a woman who reaps the scorn of the village because she flees from boredom. Her very marriage is a violation of the social code: a Muslim married to a Hindu has already challenged tradition and belief. Olivia, too, in the novel, suffers the "ambiguity of eros" because she has stepped too far to the other side.
Sucher is so well able to examine the Gothic tradition in Jhabvala, the eternal, "human" quest for wisdom and the writer's virtuosity as she layers story upon story, that the narrowness of her generalizations are bothersome. To claim that women engage in love "at their extreme peril" because "God is thought [End Page 299] of as male" is to be unaware of the presence in India of the most powerful of divinities, the goddess Kali.
I'm not sure I can agree that Jhabvala's fiction is a "celebration of human endurance." The author realizes that ambiguity and uncertainty form the essence of life in the twentieth century; one wishes the critic would have, too.