Jhabvala (Shards of Memory, 1995, etc.) describes a life she could have lived but didn’t.
Backgrounded by the question What if?, each of the nine chapters here is a variant on Jhabvala’s actual life. The women who narrate were born in Germany to Jewish families, as Jhabvala was; before WWII, they immigrated to Britain, as she did, or to the US, and, like her, they share a preoccupation with India. Some chapters are more memorable than others. In the first and most accomplished, the narrator, now old and living on a reduced income, returns to India, where she can live more cheaply. She’d lived there as a young woman working on her dissertation, but her demanding family summoned her back to New York to care for them. In India again, she is comforted by the presence of many old women like herself, who have spent “ lives of unrequited longing.” In one chapter with a New York setting, the narrator has an affair with a refugee pianist whom her mother idolizes; in another, when an old Indian lover, though ailing and wanted by the police, comes to stay, the narrator ruefully observes that he’s still attractive to younger women. Money is a problem as properties must be sold and rooms let to fellow émigrés. A narrator often falls in love with a charismatic man with spiritual interests, whom she follows to, or meets up with in, India. Relationships never work out, and the narrators are observers of others’ happiness as their own eludes them. India, too, though revered, is often equally disappointing. None of these alternate lives is enviable, though each is interesting, peopled with such characters as a famous émigré artist down on his luck who sketches a narrator in her youth; and a notable Indian guru in whose mountain home another finds temporary fulfillment.
A shuffling, to some degree, of all the same cards makes for a certain repetitiveness. But Jhabvala still outwrites many an author.