Unmarried at 35, chubby, and self-critical, Aruna Rai spends more time observing her life than living it. She pines after a man who is not interested in her, works at a job she is not passionate about, and soothes herself with the tastes of Indonesian cuisine.
An epidemiologist from Jakarta, Aruna travels with her colleague Farish across Indonesia to review cases of humans hospitalized with avian flu. She invites along two friends who will fill off-duty hours by sampling local cuisine with her. Bono, a chef, has a list of places and foods they must try. Nadezhda, a gorgeous food and lifestyle writer, has attitude to spare and philosophies to share. After speaking to hospital personnel and the patients’ families, Aruna suspects the cases of human bird flu are being faked. (But why? The story never quite pins it down definitively.) When her boss pulls her off the assignment, the four companions decide to complete the trip anyway. After all, there is so much food yet to be sampled. Despite long discussions about bird flu and food, the book is not really about either but rather a patchwork-quilt character study of Aruna. The reader-cum-therapist analyzes Aruna’s dreams (most chapters begin with one), hears her inner angst over Nadezhda’s beauty and her own plainness (“like champagne and popcorn”), and sees her fear of being alone (while at the same time she shuts herself off from people)—and tastes every bite of food she does. Aruna is likable, honest, bright, and full of wry humor. But as for the book having a strong arc, a steadily moving plot, a surprising climax before denouement...not so much.
The novel is overstuffed with food, which tends to water down what could be a strong story of a young woman fighting for her integrity despite setbacks in her social life and in the workplace. The strength of this novel is the heroine herself, the girl next door, a loyal friend, and a funny philosopher.