Guest post by Padma Venkatraman
THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE
By Stacey Lee
Pub date: 12/27/16
Katherine Tegen Books, Harper Collins
I can’t remember when I last read a romance. In fact, I’m not sure I ever read a romance. So, like Mimosa, Lee’s protagonist in THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE, who wonders if her “inexperience with human touch” makes her “that much more sensitive to it”, I can’t help wondering if my inexperience with novels in which romantic love plays a central role makes me even especially vulnerable to this book’s charm.
All I know is, I thoroughly enjoyed it. How could I not? Lee manages to make her story both deeply moving and incredibly funny, both magical and realistic. Lee’s writing is as sensuous as Laura Esquivel’s, in her bestselling novel, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE. Lee’s protagonist’s observations are vivid and beautiful, as when she describes the “charcoal cliffs that mark Las Ballenas Reserve” that “run like a black ribbon against a peacock-blue skirt.” Yet Lee seamlessly combines such poetic language with sentences filled with colloquialisms (such as “It would muck up both of our lives”) – and she pulls off this linguistic feat with seeming ease. But that’s enough gushing about her choice of words, let’s get onto plot and character.
THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE features a protagonist with an exceptional nose. Mimosa is an aromateur, a “love witch” who mixes elixirs to assist those in love. But, she isn’t allowed to fall in love herself – which of course she does, leading to hilarious complications. A lighter version of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s New York Times Bestselling MISTRESS OF SPICES, Mimosa’s story is reminiscent, at times of the film Chocolat.
But underlying the lighthearted approach, the novel’s main theme is one of self-discovery. Mimosa wonders who she is “without her nose” – and grapples with the question of what she wants for herself versus what her domineering, though kind-hearted mother feels Mimosa ought to do. The choice Mimosa faces – between romantic attachment and career – is not new; but then, it is a contest that we all face in some way, no matter how old we may be or what culture we come from, because we must all learn to find our unique way to balance work and family.
Yet, for all the pleasure I derived from reading this deftly written novel, I did pause to wonder – why/if this novel ought to be featured on a site that celebrates books dealing with issues of social justice and deeper questions about the human condition. And I might not have thought it appropriate for this site if it weren’t for the strong secondary character – Mimosa’s best friend, Kali – who, in many ways, drives the plot.
The novel’s tension arises mainly from Vicky, Mimosa’s nemesis, who threatens to out Kali, Mimosa’s classmate, who is Samoan and lesbian. Mimosa’s misguided efforts to help her friend (who points out she doesn’t need help) lead to hilarious complications. But this aspect of the novel impressed me. It shows Mimosa’s insensitivity – she refuses to accept it when Kali says she can handle her own problems, although Kali is clearly a very strong young woman. Mimosa fails in her attempt to assist Kali, who does, indeed, prove she needs no help from Mimosa. Only then does Mimosa understand and accept her own self-centeredness. Mimosa must learn to stand up for herself, to speak up, to act with confidence and self-assurance, just as Kali does, and the novel hints that Mimosa will do this someday, although she isn’t quite all the way there yet. I liked this, as well. It’s rare that the protagonist isn’t the strongest character – and in this novel, Mimosa, though an adorable main character, is not quite as emotionally mature as Kali. And, I must add, despite all I’ve said in her favor, Kali isn’t a perfect human being either – she’s a believable person.
Finally, Lee’s novel is filled with diverse characters – some are nice, some aren’t so nice. And after a childhood spent reading novel after novel in which every character (or at least every good character) was white, it was refreshing to see our nation’s multicultural nature reflected in a way that felt natural and not contrived.