This cross between historical fiction and romance would be an ideal choice for someone who loves historical fiction but is ambivalent about romance novels. While the romantic subplot feels like traditional genre romance (at least to me, with my limited knowledge of the genre), the historical plot dominates the book and is fascinating in its own right.
Here’s the story: an Englishwoman, Laura Hewitt, travels to India in the 1850s as a chaperone for her younger cousin. Unfortunately for her party, they’ve arrived at precisely the wrong time, just when tensions between the Indian army and their colonial rulers reach the boiling point, and Laura gets caught up in the siege of Lucknow. Meanwhile she meets Oliver, the “zemindar” of the title – despite being English, he’s a wealthy hereditary landowner in northern India, and an eligible bachelor to boot.
Zemindar is a very long book, at a hefty 763 pages; it uses its length to great effect, fully immersing the reader in Laura’s world, but it does take time to get started. The first 300 or so pages are devoted to establishing the cast and their relationships, traveling around India and experiencing British life there, all before any real danger appears. Once the violence begins though, there’s no going back. Fitzgerald develops all her scenes in full sensory and emotional detail, and she chose some intense material to work with. It is a great adventure story, for all that Laura keeps to her role as a 19th century lady. But it has an acuity that elevates it above the general run of historical fiction. For instance, here is Laura upon saying good-bye to the other passengers on the ship from England:
“I felt curiously lonely and lost standing at the rail for the last time as the shadows grew long and the swift dusk descended. Our time aboard had been a little lifetime in itself, distinct from everything that had gone before and from everything that would follow. Soon it would have no more importance [. . .] The tide of daily life would soon wash over the small indentations left by their personalities upon ours and ours upon theirs; in a matter of months we would find it difficult to remember their names, impossible to recall their faces and would have forgotten, most probably, even those things that most irritated or annoyed us in each other, and that had sometimes assumed such disproportionate significance during the confinement of the long voyage.”
The writing, as is evident in that passage, is assured and slightly formal, imbuing Laura with a believable 19th century voice; it is not, however, concise, and you’ll only want to pick this one up if you’re ready to settle in with it for a good while. Still, it never feels padded or repetitious: there’s simply a lot of material and the author chose not to stint on it.
Two reasons this book rates only 3.5 stars then. First, while the secondary characters are colorful and intriguing, the main pair have what I can only describe as “romance novel characterization.” We’re meant to identify with and admire Laura, and in that respect the author succeeds; she is a strong character with a believable interior life. And Fitzgerald doesn’t fall too far into clichés or fantasy; Laura is described as plain throughout (though several men fall in love with her, she’s never discovered to be physically beautiful), and we see her dirty and sweaty and irritable. But despite her resilience, she isn’t a particularly interesting character, nor a realistic one. Even after 763 pages, I can’t imagine what she would be like in real life. And some aspects of her behavior feel created deliberately to make her the ideal partner for Oliver. He has a similar problem: while instantly recognizable as a leading man, he doesn’t as much resemble an actual one.
The second issue is that, for all that the leads talk about the importance of understanding Indian culture, this is a colonialist sort of book. Despite being set entirely in India, it has no Indian major characters and only a few minor ones, all but one of whom are servants. Even Oliver, whose sympathies fall more with the Indians than the British, argues that they’re incapable of governing themselves. That said, the comparisons to Gone With the Wind – while accurate in terms of the exciting and detailed depiction of a historical era – might overemphasize this point. The book is never overtly racist and the author presents a fairly balanced picture of the war. In one of the book’s sadder moments (and there are a lot of these as the reality of war kicks in), a young, dying English soldier, who lost his sister to a massacre a few months before, brags that he made 16 Indians “remember” her. But it’s clear to Laura and the reader that he did nothing of the sort; he just murdered a bunch of innocent people, perpetuating a cycle of violence in which both sides feel themselves the victims and the others' violence unprovoked.
At any rate, this is a solid historical fiction/adventure/romance, highly recommended to those of you who enjoy this sort of thing, especially if you care more that your protagonists be likeable than that they be realistic. I’m surprised to find it out of print; it earned the $1 I spent at a library book sale many times over.