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Friday, 24 August 2012

Book Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

I came to this book after watching the recent adaptation starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton (beat that for a cast!). Although the film took a little creative licence with some of the events and characters, the essence of the book was kept and that's the most important bit. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (originally titled These Foolish Things) tells the story of an eclectic group of pensioners who travel to India to live out their retirement. The idea comes about after Dr Ravi Kapoor searches for a way to get his father-in-law, Norman, out of his way after he's been kicked out of numerous residential homes. Norman's joined by Evelyn (financially in peril due to her son), Douglas and Jean Ainslee (seemingly happily married but there are cracks under the surface), former civil servant Graham, former BBC worker Dorothy, man-hunter Madge and unfortunate Muriel (in search of her son). In addition, we come to know some of their children.

This diverse collection of characters was perhaps the only difficulty I had with the novel. It flits around a lot and I found myself thinking that I didn't much care what was happening to Christopher (Evelyn's son). However, the whole is important because there are two sides to every story. The younger perspectives helped accentuate the generation gap, even bridging it at times.

This book is essentially about how we view and treat our elderly, something perhaps more important today than ever before. Whilst Indians take on familial responsibility, we Britons are happy to be rid of our elderly family members and, more generally, people cease to be useful when they pass a certain age. This novel struck a chord with me because it deals with those issues head on. I think it's best explained in this paragraph from Dorothy's point of view:

"In recent years chronic pain had made her short-tempered. What was happening to the world? Had she missed something? People seemed to have pulled up the drawbridge and retreated into their own solipsistic little lives. Half of them didn't even bother to vote. In a way, Dorothy couldn't blame them. The rot had started with Thatcher; there's no such thing as society, but a worse betrayal was committed by her own party which had mutated into something so repellent that she was tempted to up-sticks altogether and leave the country. Even the BBC, once so familiar, was now unrecognisable. The phrase 'market forces' had, like a cancer, eaten into the organisation she had most loved. That it was elderly to think this way only made her more irritable. Newspapers were full of interviews with people she had never heard of, famous for being celebs; what had they done, what was the point of it all? No doubt Tussaud's was full of them now. At some defining moment a sea-change had occurred - around the time when train passengers were renamed customers, when ordinary dogs disappeared overnight, to be replaced by pit bull terriers. It was as if she were performing in a play and realised, quite suddenly, that the cast had been replaced by actors she had never seen before." (p49)

I don't know if this is a book of our times, whose references and insight may be lost on future generations, but, if it is, then it's one that merits a read by anyone who wishes, like Dorothy, that things hadn't changed for the worst.   

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