Ru Freeman’s gorgeous debut novel A Disobedient Girl opens with eleven-year-old Latha enjoying her daily indulgence—an afternoon wash at the well using a rose-scented soap. The soap is a symbol of status and she has stolen it from the Vithanages, a family raising her to be a servant for Thara, their same-age daughter. The two young girls become as close as sisters, but as the years pass and Latha’s duties to Thara increase, she begins to bristle in her role as servant. When she and Thara flirt with a pair of local boys, Ajith and Gehan, the obvious class disparities rise to the surface and Latha fumes with resentment. Thara proclaims Ajith her ideal mate and Latha comes to care for Gehan, a gentle, lower-caste boy who obviously cares for her. But the course of love (as they say) never runs smoothly and the romantic lives of Latha and Thara are no exception. A simple desire to show that she is more than just a servant girl, and to be rewarded for her years of service, sets Latha on a path that will affect the lives of everyone she touches.
Throughout the novel, Latha and Thara’s story parallels that of Biso, a young mother of three who flees an abusive husband as well as a scandal in her small village that she helped to create. How these two stories will intersect is unclear for much of the book, but the author’s steady hand and gorgeous prose lead us along with full confidence that they will eventually come together. A pair of gold earrings, a red sports car, and a series of mysterious explosions give us tantalizing glimpses along the way, but things are never quite what they seem. And the life-changing secrets that bind these women together are the very secrets that tear their lives apart. Moving with the characters through love lost and love gained, through surprise insights and tragic misunderstandings, the reader is enticed forward to a thrilling denouement that is the perfect combination of shock and sudden understanding. Days later, I’m still savoring the bittersweet longing delivered by A Disobedient Girl’s exquisitely resonant final chapter.