Saturday, August 1, 2009

Olivia & Jai - Rebecca Ryman

In 1848, Olivia, a young American woman, goes to Calcutta to visit relatives. Her aunt tries to break her of her "tomboyish" ways and plans to match her up with a man from high-class society. In the meantime, Olivia is more interested in her uncle's business and she would prefer to return home to America's Wild West where she can be herself. Soon, however, she meets Jai – a half-caste bastard. Olivia's aunt faints upon hearing his name and Olivia is forbidden to see Jai. Of course, Olivia sees him anyway. At times Jai is tender and loving toward Olivia. At other times he is downright offensive. In spite of his often cruel behavior, Olivia falls in love with him. Ignoring all the warnings from friends and relatives, she pursues a most volatile relationship.

Olivia & Jai is one of those books with a slight old fashioned feeling that left a wonderful impression the first time I read it a couple years ago. After writing my Why I Love...Historical Fiction set in India, I wanted to reread it and see if the magic still worked.

We first meet Olivia O’Rourke, a 23 years old American with an unusual education and lots of character, during her stay in India where she spends a year with her maternal aunt, Lady Bridget Templewood, and her family. The young woman is completely in love for this new land and its culture. Every opportunity she gets, to great despair of her snobbish aunt, she’s out exploring Calcutta and doing the best she can to get to meet the locals.

One evening, during a ball, she meets a mysterious man, Jai Raventhorne. They are both curious about each other, but when Olivia mentions his name to her family, they are all shocked and immediately warn her to keep her distances from him. Clearly there’s something going on between Raventhorne and the Templewoods and nobody seems interested to talk about it or explain the reasons of the quarrel to the young American. This situation only provokes Olivia’s curiosity about Jai…

Not long after, Olivia and Jai start to meet in secret, both unable to stop the growing attraction between them. If the young woman accepts her feelings more easily, Jai tries to keep his distances at first and warns her often that despite his love, he cannot give her what she wants. Olivia is in love and she never imagined Jai’s revenge towards her family or the unbearable pain caused by his treason…

Olivia is a charming mix of wisdom and innocence. Raised by her free thinking father in the States, she was always encouraged to give her opinion and be an independent woman. Her English aunt is completely appealed by this upbringing! She is decided to transform the young woman into a lady and find her an English husband.
If I couldn’t sometimes suspend my disbelief when I read about Olivia leaving the house all alone and spend hours in the local markets or riding, I did enjoy her curiosity about the Indian culture and the fact that she tried to break free from the quite strict British society rules and seek for something else.
Her love for Jai might seem sometimes a bit naïve and suddenly excessive, but it’s her first love and she was completely swept away by the dark and mysterious young man. His happiness is her happiness. She gave herself completely to Jai without any constraints.

Jai is Eurasian and his illegitimacy is often the center of all gossip among the local British society. He is arrogant, conceited, obnoxious and sometimes, a real pain. He is also a self made man. Nobody knows who his parents were, but he made his way into the world and built an empire. He does some terrible things, but here remains the talent of Rebecca Ryman, even during the worst moments I could never really hate Jai. He never became an unsympathetic character and I would imagine it was a hard task for the author to keep him going as a real person with its faults and qualities.

There are some small aspects that kept me from giving this book 5 stars. The language was a little too modernized sometimes, but it won’t spoil any enjoyment.
This is a story of love and revenge with some twists and turns but everything works almost perfectly for me. The character development, especially Olivia who changes so much all along the story, is quite remarkable. Also the descriptions of 19th century India are enthralling. I remember especially Olivia’s visit to the market and it was so vivid I could almost taste the pastry she was eating.

Rebecca Ryman is the pen name of an Indian writer, Asha Bhanjdeo, who only wrote three books under this name: Olivia & Jai, The Veil of Illusions (the sequel of Olivia & Jai) and Shalimar. Unfortunately, she died in 2003.

Grade: 4.5/5


  1. Oh Alex you make me want to run to the nearest bookstore and get a copy but since I'm on the wrong side of the pond maybe it would be better to rush to! ;-)

    I'm holding you fully responsible for my current addiction with all things Indian and can't wait for your other recommendations! ;-)

  2. I read Olivia and Jai awhile back and fell in love with it -- then I read Veil of Illusions and wished I'd never known a sequel existed -- the story and writing were just as good but it was one of the few times I just wish I hadn't read "the rest of the story".

  3. Ana,
    I truly hope you'll like it as much as I did. In fact, I'm almost sure you will!;-) It's always a pleasure to share our addictions!:)

    I understand you perfectly! I was so disappointed when I found out what happened in Veil of Illusions... At first, I didn’t believe it and was expecting a twist until the last pages. I mean, how could that be?! The book is still wonderful but I always feel a little bit sad at the end.

  4. I loved Olivia & Jai and couldn't agree more on Veil of Illusion. What a disappointing sequel. And I'd always known Ryman was a pseudonym but didn't know her real name until now!

  5. this sounds very good, great review.
    I love when the writing is so vivid.

  6. I really want to read this book! I enjoy reading books set in India and I am sure this would be no exception.

  7. Sounds like a really interesting book (delightful really); I certainly want to read it! :)
    Thank you for the wonderful review, Alex!


  8. This sounds so good. I am just into historical fiction lately. LOVED Pope Joan!

  9. Ana expressed my exact feelings... I want to rush to the bookstore right now! Wonder if I can buy it in ebook... Hmmmm!

  10. This sounds like a must read for me! I added it to my TBR. Thanks for bring my attention to it.

    Now please stop adding to my TBR. LOL!

  11. I have favorites that I return to every few years and Olivia and Jai is one of them. It definitely is a good read, full of passion and longing.... leaves me dazed..... Do not read the sequel. I am glad I did not, I was disappointed by the few pages I skimmed. Wished I never knew.

  12. Alannah AllbrettJuly 4, 2011 at 1:06 AM

    Olivia and Jai is the end all, be all of romantic, historical fiction. I would pay a great deal of money to be able to, somehow, forget it ~ only to reread it afresh annually. Asha (Rebecca Ryman) is unmatched in this genre. She has the ability to describe scenes and characters as to transport one there immediately and irretrievably. Her character development is not seen in the average book in this category. Jai is a magnet from whom Olivia has no chance or wish of escaping. He is enigmatic, handsome, rich, challenging, unpredictable, unfathomable, exotic, a bitter/sweet poison from which one wishes to die a slow death if only to savor the taste longer. Their enthralling, timeless love is only understood fully by Olivia's refusal to let go of their love in the sequel. And, as in real life, the sequel brings pain and fulfillment through the couple's children. If one is not willing to take the bitter with the sweet, then one does not deserve to read any of this gutsy author's unparalleled work. But if you want more than cotton candy fluff from an author, enjoy the immersion into Colonial India, its castes, its currys, its charisma, its charm, its colors, and its costs. For through Asha one sees the great costs extracted by mother India and a timeless love. FIVE STARS is not enough to honor this work, and I reread it at least three times a year. Alannah Allbrett

  13. I read this novel in 1995 and till date I am so attached with it that it seems as if some video picture is going on in my mind. Very natural and true story...I cherish this novel and like Rebecca Rymen.....very much.