Just when one had Ruth Prawer Jhabvala fixed as a writer of clever novels of manners in the British mode but with an Indian setting, she produced Heat and Dust (1975), a work that was more acutely perceptive about the Anglo-Indian experience than any other novel (including those of Paul Scott) since A Passage to India. Then, with In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), she boldly and unexpectedly transferred her setting from India to America. But she brought with her an essentially Indian theme: the relationship of a circle of needy and demanding disciples to the authoritarian guru at their center. In this case, the guru figure is not an Indian but a charismatic Jewish refugee of the Thirties, Leo Kellerman, and his circle consists of well-to-do refugee women from Germany and Austria who feel bored and stranded in New York; years later, when he is seventy, he establishes an Academy of Potential Development, which attracts not only distraught women but youthful followers from the counterculture as well. Mrs. Jhabvala casts a very cold eye indeed upon most of these people, and her novel, while skillfully constructed and often amusing, is flawed, I think, by what seems to be a virulent dislike of—or contempt for—most of her characters.
Three Continents is both longer and more ambitious than any of her previous works, and it, too, deals with the corrupted relationship between leaders and disciples. Her complex story, with its vast array of characters, is told by the naive narrator, Harriet Wishwell, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a rich but rapidly decaying American family. Harriet is also a principal figure—in fact the anti-heroine—of the often sordid tale that she tells. Her feckless parents having been divorced when she was six, Harriet and her adored twin brother, Michael, were raised by her paternal grandfather, a rich diplomat assigned to various posts, chiefly in the Middle or Far East. Educated at international schools, both twins are restless and dissatisfied with their American heritage, and both are looking for what Michael, who has spent a good deal of time wandering about India, refers to as “om, the real thing.” “While our parents were having marital squabbles and adulterous love affairs,” explains Harriet, “and our grandparents were giving diplomatic cocktail parties, he and I were struggling with concepts of Maya and Nirvana, and how to transcend our own egos.”
At the novel’s opening, Harriet is staying at Propinquity, her mother’s inherited house in what is presumably Connecticut, trying to decide whether or not to return to college for her sophomore year. While she is dithering about this decision, Michael telephones from London to say that the somewhat neglected estate must be cleaned up and made ready to receive some very important friends whom he has made in India. Arriving like royalty with an entourage, these visitors not only take over Propinquity but quickly come to dominate the lives of Harriet and Michael, their mother, Lindsay, and Lindsay’s lesbian …