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With just the right blend of empathy and intelligence, Desai (Baumgartner's Bombay, 1989) explores the West's long fascination with Indian spirituality via the story of a European couple who, like so many in the '70s, sought enlightenment in the subcontinent. When Sophie visits her ailing husband, Matteo, in an Indian hospital and begs him to return to Italy to be with her and their two children, Matteo refuses. ""You will leave, Sophie, but not I,"" he tells her. By this time they've been in India for several years, it's the mid-80s, and Sophie now understands that their children no longer matter to him: ""They were what we had left behind."" Desai's narrative moves from continent to continent and back and forth in time, following the couple up to this impasse and beyond. In many ways, the story is also a brief, for Desai is assembling a case for understanding why people like Matteo, a child of European privilege and the 1960s, chose to go on pilgrimage, to ""journey to Ithaca."" His unhappy childhood, and his own children's unease with their conventional grandparents, suggest some reasons for his desperate search for spiritual peace. Skeptical Sophie, on the other hand, goes to India simply because she loves her husband and thinks ""the possibilities...endless and fascinating."" After a few years, however, the squalor they live in, the drug-crazed hippies they meet, the charlatans they're gulled by--along with Matteo's increasing estrangement from her, and his ever-greater attachment to ""Mother,"" a charismatic guru--all send Sophie on a journey of her own. Determined to prove the Mother a fraud, she travels to Egypt, Europe, and the US, returning to India only to find the truth more troubling and complex than she imagined. Still, Sophie must keep traveling: the Mother is now dead, and Matteo has disappeared.... A splendidly nuanced evocation, never credulous or dismissive of those impelled to go on pilgrimage: Pilgrim's Progress updated and uprooted, but still as compelling.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1995
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf