Rajat Narula’s Azalea Heights is his second book after The Jasmine Bloom, which was published in October 2021. While The Jasmine Bloom focuses on the fragility of modern life, cultural clashes and coming together are at the heart of Azalea Heights’ narrative. The plot centers around a diverse cast of characters, each struggling in a vortex of complex personal and socio-political realities.
A recently divorced Naina lives with her widowed mom, who’s losing her memory. She works hard being a parent, dutiful daughter, possibly considering a new love interest, while at the same time grappling with the stresses of a job where she faces sexism.
Proud Pakistani American, Altaf is a congenial small business owner who’s unable to connect with his young, radicalized American-born teenager, Zain.
Rohan is the owner of a small neighborhood restaurant with big dreams.
Gerard lives with his wife, Ruth, and teenage daughter, Sara. He’s a retired Iraqi war veteran who is grappling with his inner demons, PTSD, and war legacy.
There’s also Kate, trying desperately to come to terms with a loss no parent should have to suffer. All these people live in a development called, no points for guessing, Azalea Heights.
Each of their lives, thanks to today’s modern living, are siloed to some extent. But their paths do intersect. Superficially as neighbors, through park run-ins, and housewarming get-togethers.
And one other time, when a life-altering incident shakes up the uneasy peace of the neighborhood when twenty-two students at Winston Elementary School are held hostage. The gunmen demand the release of ISIS leaders held in Iraq, all amidst a nail-biting rescue attempt by the FBI that could get the children killed.
I bet you didn’t see that coming. Or maybe you did…
Unity in Diversity
Azalea Heights not only captures escalating tensions and suspicions amongst residents of the neighborhood but also successfully recognizes the American spirit of sacrifice and camaraderie during a crisis. It also poignantly portrays the strength of basic human emotions like the love for our family, the sorrow of loss, and the importance of communication and self-expression that unite us all as human beings. These are universal regardless of differences in ideological beliefs, religion, and political affiliations. Basic emotions that are more uniting than polarizing.
This fast-paced, page-turner, while poignant, remains a light read with accessible language and relatable characters in everyday situations. Every character’s story is different, yet is essential to the plot and its culmination. Thereby, making no character a clear protagonist. Further, readers get a unique opportunity to empathize with and understand where each of these characters is coming from, even though each represents a very different walk of life in a larger milieu.
As I breezed through Azalea Heights, I found the book to be very visual. I kept imagining and playing out the scenes in my mind. Not sure if Narula actually intended it. Or was it just me? Almost akin to a great script for a cross-cultural movie, the theme, character development, the setting descriptions, and the twists & turns all seemed to have the right amount of spice and suspense that would make for an enjoyable masaledaar film!
In any case, as a reader, I found the book to be entertaining and thought-provoking. So, if you think it’s time to start stocking up on some good summer reads, put Azalea Heights on the list!
Nidhi Kirpal‘s pre-kids’ life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.