“Whisper of the Lotus” is a little deceiving, but not in a bad way! The synopsis focuses heavily on this idea of the main character, Charlotte, needing excitement, fleeing a dead-end job to impulsively visit her childhood best friend (Roxy) who has been living and thriving in Cambodia for the past 3 years after leaving London. In reality, the book is much deeper than that. Charlotte is less fleeing a boring existence, as she is getting away from a narcissistic parent who has emotionally taken advantage of her and guilt tripped her into never leaving. We watch Charlotte do things for herself for the first time in nearly a decade and through the experience of traveling so far away and meeting so many kind people, discover a voice that her mother almost completely took away. I don’t know if this book necessarily needed to take place in Cambodia in order for it to have the same emotional impact as we learn more and more of the secrets hidden from Charlotte, but here we are.
I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of Cambodia and its people in this novel. I am not native to the region, I’ve never visited, and the little I know about the country centers on it’s very tragic and violent past. So I can’t comment on the authenticity of any of the people or areas as described in the book, though the author did live in Cambodia for a period of time, so I do have faith that they portrayed things honestly, even if from an expat point of view. I am also not Buddhist so I can’t comment on the Buddhist faith which has a significant role to play in the book, but I do know the author did take the time to consult with Buddhists and Buddhists scholars, so just know that going in. But I will defer to any native resident of Cambodia or active Buddhist. I felt that was important to note, though my review will focus more on the transformation we see Charlotte undergo, as that, to me, was the shining star of this novel.
I was really blown away by watching Charlotte truly see her mother for who she is and the toxic relationship they had with her. I thought that was so accurately depicted and watching our main character finally understand that and decide to take a stand was an incredible message, and so well done! It may be a little hard for someone who does have a narcissistic parent to read, but I think that’s how you know the author really captured how difficult it is for someone to be in that situation, and then attempt to get out of it. I really wish more time had been spent on those topics rather than some of the meandering plot points we get with Charlotte putting herself in dangerous situations merely because she is a naive traveler and Roxy can’t take time off work to show her around. I also wasn’t that invested in the Rashid mystery that is part of the undercurrent of this book. It gave the story a paranormal-like vibe that I think needed more substance to really pull off and, ultimately, it just made Cambodia feel far too small of a country as Charlotte kept running into the same few people over and over again, or stumble upon exactly who she needs to exactly when she needs to.
At the end of the day, this novel attempts to do a lot as it tries to show this lovely view of Cambodia (through a MC tourists eyes) as well as Buddhism, so it is partially a love letter to that country. Plus it has all these elements of an epic family drama between the MC and her abusive mother all while trying to answer the burning question of: why did her father leave and never contact her again? The reader is given answers, which is great! But the things I personally loved the story for felt too few and far between, and both our MC and her friend Roxy could be hard to like at times—one coming across as far too meek and the other too dismissive of the very real trauma her friend lived through. I think if the plot had been a bit more focused, this would have been a truly fabulous read for me! It’s well written, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just missing that little extra for me personally which is why I am giving it 3.5 stars but I’d still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction with a heavy focus on family dynamics, drama, and self-discovery. And thanks to the author for sending me a copy for an honest review
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