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A riveting tale of dreams, doubts

As far back as she can remember, Rakhi has wanted to be a dream interpreter like her mother, who maintains that "a dream is a telegram from the hidden world." An Indian-American in San Francisco, Rakhi believes this noble, mysterious vocation will not only let her be helpful to others, but also make her "more Indian." Like a displaced person yearning for a homeland she has never seen, she thinks it might provide ancestral roots so lacking in her middle-class American life.

Her mother, who steadfastly refuses to speak of the past, only feeds Rakhi's curiosity with deprivation. Rakhi believes that if she could only cultivate this gift, it would let her understand her beautiful and powerful yet often distant mother, called the "Queen of Dreams" by Rakhi's father.

The moniker is the title of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new novel, which tells Rakhi's poignant, engaging story. Author of the award-winning, best-selling "The Mistress of Spices," Divakaruni continues her signature theme of examining women caught between cultures, struggling to establish their identity and integrity in a world fractured by conflicting values.

In "Queen of Dreams," which unfolds through alternating first-person accounts by Rakhi and her mother, those cultural rifts span two generations, as both women come to grips with their life choices and their own dreams.

One of the first indications young Rakhi has that her mother's life is not an ordinary one is that her mother always sleeps alone, saying: "My work is to dream. I can't do it if someone is in bed with me. . . . I dream the dreams of other people. So I can help them live their lives."

That calling, however, came at a price. Rakhi's mother was taken away from her family at a young age by an aunt who recognized her gift. She was taken to live with other interpreters to hone her facility and to keep her away from the distractions of emotional entanglements. She wasn't supposed to fall in love with Rakhi's father, much less marry him and move to America, as the move, the interpreters warned, would sever her ability to interpret dreams. While she was prepared to make this sacrifice, her gift ultimately regenerated, and the sacrifice became one foisted upon her oft-neglected family. Her greatest disappointment was that she could never interpret her own daughter's dreams, "defeated by the oneness of blood."

Rakhi's disappointment is that she does not have the gift to interpret dreams, and she feels doomed to never really connect with her mother. She also struggles to raise a young daughter, Jona, after a devastating divorce from Jona's father, Sonny, and to nurture her work as an artist amid nagging self-doubts.

Along the way, Rakhi is bolstered by her best friend and business partner, Belle, also an Indian-American. "They've loaned each other money and underwear, courage and lipstick, and held each other's heads when they threw up after parties to which they shouldn't have gone. They've confessed to each other things about themselves that they've never dared to tell anyone before, and seen themselves newly through each other's eyes."

Together, Belle and Rakhi have converted a rundown establishment into a respected bakery called Chai House. The bakery gives Rakhi's life focus and meaning, helping to provide a reason to get up in the morning, a way "to make at least one part of my life turn out right." But when Chai House's business is calamitously threatened by a newly opened megachain coffeehouse up the street and the 9/11 attacks stir racial tensions in the neighborhood, Rakhi's world is shaken to the core.

"Queen of Dreams" is a riveting story, eloquently written. Divakaruni's attention to detail in descriptive passages is beautifully telling without being at all overblown. A tiny glimpse into the family dynamic, for example, is simple yet vividly potent, as Rakhi describes her long-misunderstood father cleaning up the kitchen after a meal, "humming a Hindi song as he scrubbed the sink with Comet, his hands encased in neon yellow gloves. He was always the tidy one in our household, the methodical one, always kind, the one with music. My mother -- secretive, stubborn, unreliable -- couldn't hold a tune to save her life. I wanted to be just like her."

It is only after Rakhi's mother dies under mysterious circumstances and her father helps her interpret her mother's dream journals that both daughter and husband begin to piece together the complicated truth and sacrifice of Rakhi's mother's life.

For the reader, the journals provide a fascinating glimpse into the history and culture of India. For the characters, the journals are revelatory, bringing them closer to understanding themselves and each other.

"The sharing of the story has created something between them, something that stretches, trembling like the thinnest strand of a spider web." The process not only helps them reconcile past and present, it also lays the foundation for building a bridge to the future.

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