Review: ‘Where the Peacocks Sing’ by Alison Singh Gee

by Kim on February 19, 2013 · 14 comments

Post image for Review: ‘Where the Peacocks Sing’ by Alison Singh Gee

Title: Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, A Prince, and the Search for Home
Author: Alison Singh Gee
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★½☆

Publisher’s Summary: Alison Singh Gee was a glamorous magazine writer with a serious Jimmy Choo habit, a weakness for five-star Balinese resorts, and a reputation for dating highborn British men. Then she met Ajay, a charming and unassuming Indian journalist, and her world turned upside down. Traveling from her shiny, rapid-fire life in Hong Kong to Ajay’s native village, Alison learns that not all is as it seems. Turns out that Ajay is a landed prince (of sorts), but his family palace is falling to pieces. Replete with plumbing issues, strange noises, and intimidating relatives, her new love’s ramshackle palace, Mokimpur, is a broken-down relic in desperate need of a makeover. And Alison wonders if she can soldier on for the sake of the man who just might be her soul mate.

This modern-day fairy tale takes readers on a cross-cultural journey from the manicured gardens of Beverly Hills, to the bustling streets of Hong Kong and finally to the rural Indian countryside as Alison comes to terms with her complicated new family, leaves the modern world behind, and learns the true meaning of home.

Review: I have to admit that I went into Where the Peacocks Sing with a little trepidation. I’m often very hot or cold with memoirs and fiction of this style, loves stories in exotic places where a shallow person comes to realize the True Meaning of Love/Life/Home/Family through a relationship with someone else. And this story — a woman who loves Jimmy Choo shoes falls in love with a modest Indian man who then turns out to be part of a wealthy Indian family — seemed like it could be an excellent travel story or be too close to chick lit for my taste.

Where the Peacocks Sing ended up landing just about in the middle. I loved when the story focused on life in India and the way the modern world is changing the people and estates of that country, but felt disconnected from the narrator and her personal transformation because of some details that I found difficult to accept or understand.

India is a complicated place to write about or understand that seems to become even more varied with each new book about it that I read. In this case, Gee does a beautiful job writing about life at Mokimpur, an Indian manor with hundreds of room, vast fields and orchards filled with wild birds. But it’s more than just a castle — in the past, Mokimpur and the family that lived there were the center of village life and provided economic support and stability to the region. But times are changing, and families that own manors like this one are struggling to maintain their homes and their responsibilities to their neighbors. It’s a fascinating story about how modern life impacts long-held traditions, and I thought Gee did a lovely and thoughtful job describing these seismic cultural shifts with humor and understanding.

But there were also parts of the memoir where I wasn’t connecting with the, for lack of a better term, character development of the story. As readers, we’re supposed to empathize with Gee’s evolution from a spoiled society girl to a woman who can truly appreciate home and family in whatever modest lifestyle that means. But there were these small details that came up as Gee was talking about her, apparently, destitute life with Ajay that made me scratch my head — their combined salary translated from Hong Kong dollars into American dollars was “well into six figures,” and they could afford to live in a multi-bedroom apartment and hire a maid in a terribly expensive city.

Clearly this is a change from the life of glamorous, high society Hong Kong, but it was not nearly the dire straits that I had been under the impression Gee and Ajay were leading. Details like these pulled me out of the book and made me wonder what other sorts of differences in perspective there might be. Even at the most serious economic moments of the story, the main characters of this book lead lives of privilege that feel at odds with the riches to rags to rich-in-love transformation story that the narrative is built around.

Despite these sticking points — which have as much to say about my perspective on wealth as anything else — I enjoyed many aspects of this book. I’d recommend it if you enjoy lighter nonfiction and love the details you can find in evocative and entertaining travel writing.

Other Reviews: Kirkus Reviews |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison February 20, 2013 at 1:23 am

Dear Kim,

Thanks for your thoughtful review of my book. I can really sense the work and level of thinking you channeled into your review.

My editor and I knew that my narrator (me!) might come off as unlikable in some aspects, and hopefully grow more likable as her self awareness blossoms. Thus, even though I may come off as somewhat unsympathetic to start, I felt I had to be authentic to my growth in consciousness. It’s a hard decision for a writer to reveal her profound flaws, but it’s one I felt I had to make.

In regards to Ajay and my making more than $100,000 combined — I bring that up in the book precisely because my narrator was looking at life through such a warped prism; the admission is meant to reveal to readers that “Alison” has inherited the knotty relationship with money that her parents passed onto her. I know this conflict might be difficult to understand for people who did not have a similar relationship with money. However, I think a lot of women do have complicated perspectives on cash and have a hard time defining wealth and value — we receive so many conflicting signals, especially in the big coastal cities. And that is another issue I hoped to ask readers to address. Michel de Montaigne said, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” I felt my own struggle with worth (self value and otherwise) reflected that of many other women coming of age, and finding their own way in the world.

At the same time, you are correct when you say that Hong Kong is a very expensive city: We really could not afford to live an expat lifestyle, not even close — the occasional taxi was a splurge — and that was humbling.

I am delighted that you enjoyed inhabiting, so to speak, Mokimpur and the family haveli. That you understood the crumbling of the palace and the fall of Ajay’s family in the context of the rise of modern India is a testament to your insightfulness.

The book has been getting terrific reviews — grateful if you could co-post these, alongside the Kirkus Review, which I found bizarre and nonsensical. I don’t at all mind intelligent, well considered criticism, but I read the Kirkus review and felt as though the reviewer hadn’t even finished my book. But that’s okay. I have found an insightful audience with other reviewers, such as renowned travel writer Don George, who named Where the Peacock Sing National Geographic Traveler’s Book of the Month:

http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/04/triplit-best-new-travel-books/

Peter Larsen of the Orange County Register wrote this delightful piece:

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/gee-496138-says-book.html?fb_action_ids=10151451291289742&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=246965925417366

Booklist’s Amber Peckham’s nuanced review:

Seasoned journalist Gee invites readers to accompany her on a journey of discovery. Gee was living a posh but unfulfilling life in Hong Kong, writing for Asiaweek and attending stilted parties. Enter Ajay Singh, the rugged Delhi correspondent. Their long-distance communications quickly blossom into love. Gee finds herself engaged to Singh and pinching pennies so they can live together in a small apartment. Just when the disdain of her wealthy friends is too much to bear, Ajay drops a bomb—it turns out that his family owns and stewards a 100-room palace, Mokimpur, in the Indian countryside, and are considered royalty. Gee, who has always been enamored of India, is eager to visit the estate and meet the rest of the Singh clan. But life at Mokimpur is not always what she expects. Gee’s writing is sensually evocative, and she is candid about when her ideals come into conflict with Indian culture. She writes about such tension with an informative grace that will teach readers deep truths about India without their realizing all that Gee is up to.
— Amber Peckham

The reviews that have meant the most to me however are those who have come from well-read acquaintances who have told me that after they read Where the Peacocks Sing they thought about it, and the questions I raised about defining wealth and notions of home, for days afterward.

Thank you for writing about my book on your blog, Kim. I welcome you and your readers to join me on my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/AlisonSinghGee

Very best, Alison

Reply

Alison February 20, 2013 at 1:37 am

P.S. Kim, if your readers are interested at an inside look at how I actually got this book published, here is a lively Q & A that just appeared on Writerland.com, Meghan Ward’s on-the-pulse blog for aspiring writers:

http://meghanward.com/blog/2013/02/19/author-interview-alison-singh-gee/

Reply

bermudaonion(Kathy) February 20, 2013 at 8:27 am

I guess everyone’s idea of a modest lifestyle is different. She sounds pretty spoiled all the way around to me. I’d still give it a try, though, since it’s a memoir.

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Charlie February 20, 2013 at 10:41 am

I’m thinking similarly to Kathy – the money thing, but it does sound interesting, especially the information about past and present.

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Alison February 20, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Hi, Kathy and Charlie,

Great to meet you here!

I’d like to dispel this idea that this book is about a spoiled girl who inherits a palace — I have a feeling that most intuitive readers will find many more dimensions in this story. I labored very hard (over five years!) to make this a multi-layered narrative, and I don’t feel that effort is truly represented here.

But, everyone brings a different reading to the book — Kim brings the perspective of somebody who has grown up in her particular way (and, not knowing Kim, I can’t even begin to comment on that). I welcome her dissension. That’s what makes a forum such as this such a fascinating conversation.

I was a bit surprised that this review did not refer at all to the “narrator’s” childhood, and how formative that was, and that that is one of the narrator’s unconscious driving forces throughout. Having said that, I think it would have been great for the reviewer to have considered more deeply the many facets of this story, and what it could offer to a wider audience. I don’t think the book is light nonfiction, although there are lots of moments of deadpan humor, I am told. (Actually, it was authors Amy Tan and Tahir Shah who said that!)

The narrator (okay, me) grew up in a household where the dad was a dreamer who chased after castles in the sky. He, in turn, was part of a well-off Chinese-American family who basically disowned him. His quest for land and a manor of his own (a quest that failed, by the way) was his way of vindicating himself, showing his family he could make it on his own. Similarly, the narrator inherits from her father this belief that money and a so-called good life is what brings you protection.

There’s a whole Chinese-American story line throughout this book that you both might find fascinating, and a counterpoint to the Indian landscape/philosophy (also not mentioned in the review, for some reason). We all take from a book what we are willing to take. I hope my book offer readers adventure, a peek inside cultural philosophies — American, Chinese and Indian, a young woman’s story of self discovery. This book was supposed to be funny, fraught and dazzling. Ultimately, this book is about finding value: All abundance comes from within.

Jojo Moyes, whose phenomenal bestseller Me Before You has been capturing American imaginations, said this about the book:

“This is a beautifully written, honest and evocative account of one woman’s journey of self-discovery when her LA magazine-cover life collides with that of her aristocratic husband and his decrepit palace in rural India. Singh Gee raises fascinating questions about our relationships with property and how our dreams can shape and even sabotage our happiness. I felt like I too lived in Mokimpur by the end of it, with all its glorious sights and smells, and I got a far more interesting picture of modern rural India than can usually be gleaned through the media. Most importantly it made me think hard about what the word Home actually means.” –JoJo Moyes, author of Me Before You.

I welcome you to read other fine reviews — National Geographic Traveler’s iconic travel writer Don George named Peacocks its Book of the Month.
http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/tag/alison-singh-gee/

And Entertainment Weekly’s editor emailed me personally to say she loved the book and was grateful that I brought it to her attention (stay tuned for that review).

I really thank you for taking in interest in my memoir! I hope you get a chance to read it. Please let me know your thoughts on my Facebook Book page: I welcome you and your readers to join me on my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/AlisonSinghGee

All best to you wonderful book lovers! Alison

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Kim February 20, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Hi Alison,

You’re welcome to leave comments on this review to clarify or discuss some of the issues that I raised in my post. I certainly respect the time and effort that went into this book, and as I stated there were many sections that I enjoyed a lot. However, there were also sections that I had questions about and I think I wrote about my reactions honestly and fairly. You are obviously welcome to disagree.

However, I don’t think it’s necessary for you to come into my space and insult me because you don’t like or don’t agree with my personal impressions of this story and how I chose to write about them.

Thank you,
Kim

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Alison February 20, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Hi, Kim,

I think our electronic communication is failing here. I have had zero intention of insulting you or invading your space (I thought you invited comments?) — and I am so sorry you felt that way.

My intention was to set straight questions you yourself raised in your review, as well as questions your readers might also have raised. If you look at my comments again, I think I have been very diplomatic and communicative. Perhaps you feel I am reviewing the reviewer? Most of the authors I know do exactly that!

Please keep in mind that I could also take your review as an insult (just as you took my retort as an insult) –but I don’t. I respect that you are coming from a particular place in the world that differs from mine and so will react to my story in a different way. The fact is that we both put our “stories” out to the public, and that invites scrutiny and discussion.

It’s not comfortable having your thoughts examined and disagreed with — I agree. I’m in the hot seat right now! Apologies that you took my response personally. It certainly wasn’t meant as a personal attack. I hope you will take my posts as I intended them: As an intellectual discussion and clarification straight from the source.I enjoy your blog and plan to send my UCLA Extension students your way.

Best of luck with the blog and thank you again for reading and featuring my book.

All best, Alison

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Sheila (Book Journey) February 23, 2013 at 8:24 am

I popped in to day hi and love the cover of this book so had to read on abut it. Interesting.

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Laurie C February 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Kim, I just want to chime in in your defense here. I understand why you felt insulted by the barrage of links and quotes the author of this book includes in her comments while saying she is only clarifying “questions” you had. Any author who can write about her own book “This book was supposed to be funny, fraught and dazzling” should not be responding to reviews, because it’s going to be very hard for her to remain objective. Your review was extremely balanced and over all positive. I enjoy books set in India and might have tried this one based on your review.

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maphead February 24, 2013 at 6:49 pm

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Hamlet, Act III, scene II
Dats all I gotta say.

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Liz February 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

Ditto what Maphead said…

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Carrie September 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Hi Kim,

I enjoyed this review. I agree with it wholeheartedly. Here is a link to my review (and I’ve linked to yours on my site).

http://otherwomensstories.blogspot.com/2013/06/book-review-where-peacocks-sing-alison.html

Also enjoyed reading your back and forth with the author. It was elucidating as to the author’s character.

Keep up the good work.

Carrie

Reply

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