Anjali Banerjee’s HAUNTING JASMINE is the story of Jasmine Mistry, a recently-divorced Indian-American woman who is angry, bitter, and wants nothing to do with men. She’s been called home to Shelter Island (in Puget Sound) to watch over her great-aunt Ruma’s bookstore as her great-aunt insists that she has a “heart problem” and needs to be treated in India. But what her aunt didn’t tell Jasmine is that this particular bookstore is haunted by the spirits of dead authors, and that Ruma believes that Jasmine (whom she insists on calling “Bippy,” a childhood nickname) may have the same talents that Ruma herself has to talk with spirits.
Ruma is an extremely sympathetic character from the start, which helps propel the book until Jasmine finds her feet. This takes approximately three chapters to do. Until that point, we know that Jasmine must have worth as she came home immediately despite it potentially causing trouble with her job. We also see a little of Jasmine’s caring personality as she and Ruma interact until Ruma leaves in the second chapter.
The other things that are going on — her sister’s impending marriage, her ex-husband’s wish for Jasmine to sell their condo to him for peanuts, and Jasmine’s interactions with Ruma’s bookstore manager, Tony (an “out and proud” gay man who’s a reluctant writer, avid reader, and believes in the psychic gifts Ruma has without seeming to have any of them himself) — are all present, but muted in such a way that I have to believe it was a deliberate authorial choice.
You see, Jasmine shut a lot of herself down once she divorced her ex-husband, and Ruma knew it because she and Jasmine had always been close. Ruma’s wish for Jasmine to take over the bookstore in Ruma’s absence while living in the upstairs bedroom (because the spirits get very rattled if no one is in residence) is Ruma’s way of telling Jasmine that life still has something to offer even if it’s not exactly what Jasmine had ever intended or desired.
Of course, Ruma doesn’t spell any of this out, so Jasmine struggles to understand why anyone would want to work in this run-down, out-of-the-way bookstore. This is a place where many out-of-print and unusual books proliferate, and Jasmine doesn’t understand why her aunt doesn’t have more best-sellers and fewer out-of-print oddities because she really doesn’t believe in psychic gifts at all, which means Jasmine has pretty much missed the point as to why she’s there at that place and time.
Then, into Jasmine’s life comes an enigmatic stranger, Connor Hunt. Who is this man, and why is Jasmine immediately drawn to him? (Hint, hint: this man is exactly why this book is classified as a “paranormal romance.” And if the reader doesn’t pick that up right away — I know I sure did — Tony the bookstore manager is right there to give some gentle hints, which of course Jasmine ignores as she’s maintaining her sturdy rationality for as long as she can get away with it.)
The romance between Jasmine and Connor is good, but not exceptional. I really liked Connor as a character, but I knew right away that this was a type of romance that is enough to heal someone, but not enough to stay forever. (Jasmine knows that much, too, even though she’s not sure why at first.) The reader discovers this along with Jasmine in a pleasant but undemanding fashion, which is an unusual way to show a meaningful romance but gets the job done.
What makes HAUNTING JASMINE special is due to the various literary characters Jasmine encounters along the way. We meet Jane Austen, Julia Child, and many other deceased authors well-known and not, and the interactions Jasmine has with them are stronger than any of the interactions she has in the day-to-day world with the possible exceptions of Ruma and, later on, Tony. We find out that Jasmine does indeed have powers similar to Ruma’s, and can literally “match” a book to someone who needs that particular book — she can “see” it, somehow — which leads to a few life-changing moments for the bookstore’s customers, always for the better, once Jasmine accepts that she truly does have this ability.
The minuses here mostly have to do with the slow start due to Jasmine’s implacable anger and hostility (understandable though it is, it’s a hard slog until she starts behaving more like an adult) and with the undemanding nature of the romance between Jasmine and Connor. I understood that this romance was likely to be short-term (not merely because of the paranormal element), but I like to see a little more passion between lovers than I saw here. (Not sex, mind you; deep feelings that matter, no matter how long or short the relationship.) And while I really enjoyed Tony’s character as he stole every scene he was written into, in some ways I didn’t understand what he was doing there except that Jasmine obviously wouldn’t have been able to handle a straight bookstore manager at first — even a straight, faithful, obviously married one probably wouldn’t have worked due to her anger with all things heterosexual male at the start of this book.
All that being said, HAUNTING JASMINE is a fun book and a quick read, but with some unexpected depth. I enjoyed the literary flair, the sprinkling of Indian culture and cuisine, and Jasmine’s spiritual and sensual reawakening, and would gladly read something else by Ms. Banerjee down the road.
— reviewed by Barb