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East of the Sun,” by Julia Gregson, a former journalist and foreign correspondent, is one of those novels the reader wishes would never end.
Set in 1928, the story tells of Rose, Victoria and Viva, three naive British girls who set out for India as part of the pejoratively nicknamed “Fishing Fleet,” i.e., upper-class girls who sailed to India where there was an abundance of suitable potential husbands.
Not all young girls were completely successful: Some married in haste. Many were often homesick and lonely, with their soldier-husbands off fighting. India was in a state of unrest as Ghandi and others demonstrated for independence from England. But the worst thing that could happen to one of the “Fishing Fleet” was to be “returned empty.” If you couldn’t even obtain one proposal in India, it was hopeless.
Women were starting to seek independence, so there were a few “Bluestockings” in India, too. Some were teachers helping out in orphanages. There were also the bored matron society ladies who entertained themselves with parties and affairs.
In this novel, Rose, aged 19, has been courted by an officer home on leave, and although she has only seen him a few times, she has convinced herself she is in love and wants to go to India to marry him. Victoria, known as Tor, is her best friend, but not nearly as pretty as Rose. Tor wants to go along as maid of honor with hopes of staying on with a distant cousin for one season to see if she can find a husband, too.
To accompany the young girls, their mothers hire a young chaperone, Viva, who has lied about her age to get the job. She was born in India but has not been back since she was ten. Her parents and only sister are buried there and she needs to go back to settle unfinished business. She is not looking for a husband; she is an aspiring author, determined to have a life of independence.
Once the protagonists arrive in India, they are confronted by a culture and a climate for which they are unprepared.
This novel is filled with great characters in a time when modern India was erupting and the rest of the world was changing as well. It is a novel that is difficult to put down.