This spellbinding novel is set in colonial India of 1911. It tells the story of Alexandre Lautens, a young French linguist from the Sorbonne, who has traveled to southern India to study and write a grammar of Telugu, an obscure but beautiful ancient language of that region. As the guest of a wealthy, Anglophile Indian family, he works in the midst of the lush, sensual sites and scents of tropical India, and in the midst of the family’s domestic life and its two daughters. Mohini, engaged to be married, is lovely and graceful with no desires beyond a good marriage. The elder daughter, Anjali, lacks any beauty, and her childhood polio has robbed her of any grace. She does, however, possess a brilliant, politically subversive, and unhappy mind. Her eventual love for the married Alexandre and his heedless disregard for the gulf between their two worlds lead them not to a physical affair, but nevertheless to shame and banishment for her, and, to a lesser extent, for him as well.
The Grammarian is a marvelously written novel, filled with lovely, atmospheric descriptions of India and of the life Alexandre lives with his wealthy hosts. The author captures India is all its sensuality: the colors and smells, the languid heat and fecundity. The Telugu language mirrors this lushness and further seduces Alexandre. The final few chapters of the book lose momentum and some interest once Alexandre leaves India and his and Anjali’s separate lives are brought up to post-World War II. But that doesn’t mar the mesmerizing accomplishment of the novel’s exquisite writing and the author’s seductive storytelling. One of the year’s best. Most highly recommended.