The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)by Published 09 Jan 2018
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Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father's law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women's rights.
Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.
The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women's quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It's her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.
"The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)" Reviews
This is a very well done old-fashioned historical novel and my first experience with Massey. Perveen is the only female practicing lawyer in 1921 Bombay. She is unable to argue cases in court due to the strictures of the time and instead works as a solicitor for her father’s practice. At its heart, this is a murder mystery and a good one. There is a bit of a dual timeline but it doesn’t occur every other chapter so the novel flows more smoothly than other books that have used this device.
Perveen’s experiences in 1916 and 1917 inform the woman that she is in 1921 and you can’t help but like her. She’s intelligent, feisty and thoughtful. Her unique status as a female lawyer allows her to represent and interact directly with three widows practicing purdah. I didn’t know much about the practice of seclusion and found this to be fascinating. Actually, I didn’t know much about Indian culture in general other than that the religious and language differences among the population are many and I came away from this book knowing more than I did. By reading this book, I attended a Parsi wedding and learned a little about food preparation. I never expected to like this book as much as I did.
“As the only female lawyer in Bombay, you hold a power that nobody else has,” a British government official tells Perveen Mistry in this first of a refreshingly original mystery series – and he’s right. It’s 1921, and Perveen is a solicitor in her father’s law firm. Even though she can’t appear in court, her position and gender mean she’s the only individual with the means to look into a potential instance of deception and fraud.
A Muslim mill-owner's three widows, who live in purdah with their children in his mansion on Malabar Hill, appear to have given away their rightful dower and inheritance. Perveen suspects they didn’t realize the implications of their signature, and when she visits the three individually, it appears that she’s correct. When she discovers a body on her return visit to the Farid family, she suspects a member of the household did it – but who?
There’s considerably more to the plot than a traditional murder mystery, though. Though only 23, Perveen has a professional, mature demeanor that helps her gain the widows’ confidence, and there’s a reason behind it: she’s been through a lot in her short life. Massey depicts her backstory in chapters set back in 1916. This allows for two stories running in parallel: who committed the crime at Malabar Hill, and what trauma did Perveen endure? While I was struck by the abrupt jump back in time initially, I came to feel that this increased the suspense.
The setting for this story is absolutely key, and from the Mistry residence on the city’s outskirts to the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel along the harborfront, the layout of historical Bombay is described in clear, thorough fashion (the maps at the beginning are helpful but not absolutely necessary). Perveen and her family are Parsis – descendants of immigrants from Iran – and followers of Zoroastrianism, and the novel explores the religion’s traditional and more orthodox beliefs. Bombay contains a multiplicity of cultures, classes, and languages, and I came to admire Perveen’s ability to steer a fine path through it all.
What comes through most strongly in this entertaining work, though, is the status of women, and how much Perveen had to accomplish to get where she is. The Widows of Malabar Hill also makes you think about how critical the support of family and others can be for women in desperation; where would the novel's characters have been without it?
I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.
First reviewed at Reading the Past, based on an ARC received at BookExpo last year.
I wavered between 3 and 4 stars throughout the story. I enjoyed that it took place in Bombay, India, in the early part of the 20th century. It was fascinating to learn about Indian culture and laws during this period of time. The protagonist, Perveen, was also a likeable character who represented women's rights and the suffragette movement that was taking place around the world. I was captivated during the chapters that focused on Perveen when she was 19 years old.
Unfortunately I found the later timeline a bit staler. It involved Perveen, at 23 years old, working as the first female lawyer in Bombay at her father's law practice. This was also the murder mystery part. As the story began, I found myself utterly confused by all of the characters and the use of Parsi words. I usually enjoy it when authors include bits of the language of the country they are writing about, but in this instance, had a hard time understanding what was being said. As a result, it took me awhile to get into the story and I had to force myself to push on. Once the second timeline kicked in, I was then able to actually engage.
The mystery part will probably appeal to those who enjoy detective crime novels. For me, that genre is just meh....so it wasn't my cup of tea. I was intrigued to know how it turned out and found the ending to be average. In all, an okay literary mystery with some interesting historical details about Indian culture in Bombay.
I can see how many people would enjoy this series. It fell a bit flat for me. It read like a Nancy Drew mystery to me. I've upgraded my rating from two to three stars. I started thinking about it more, and I realized that because I listened to this book, I was influenced by the narrator's voice for the characters. As I said, it felt like a Nancy Drew mystery to me. I think that was due to the narrator. If I had read it, I think that the story of the widows and Perveen's own story of oppression would have melded better. So....I would definitely read it, not listen to it.
Perveen Mistry is the first practicing female lawyer in Bombay in the early 1920s. In assisting her father with the administration of an estate, she notices something odd about a letter they received from the widows of the decedent: the widows claim they all want to donate their inheritances to the family charity. The custodian of the estate is pushy and demands the funds be made available for charitable purposes, but Perveen wants to meet with the widows in person to discuss their rights to their husband’s estate. She’s uniquely suited to the task because the widows are in seclusion due to their religious beliefs and cannot be in the presence of men. When someone turns up dead at the widows’ home, it becomes clear that Perveen is dealing with more than just an estate dispute.
I’ll admit I got a little impatient with this one because the publisher’s blurb didn’t prepare me for the amount of time we would spend in Perveen’s past. We know from the beginning that she is single and working as a lawyer in Bombay, so the lengthy chapters detailing her courtship and subsequent, predictably miserable marriage dragged. If those events had been summarized in a single chapter, or incorporated in much shorter segments, this would have been a more fun book to read.