All of their lives Harriet and Michael have had a special closeness to each other, caused in part by the troubled circumstances of their upbringing: Their equally irresponsible parents were soon divorced and now lead less than model lives, while their grandfather’s diplomatic career meant frequent and disruptive travels for them around the world. The siblings begin drifting apart, though, when Michael’s search for a cause worthy of his idealism leads him to bring the Rawul and his followers home to Proprinquity, their mother’s valuable estate.
At first unhappy with the movement and its representatives, especially Crishi, Harriet gradually becomes involved as well, so that the growing loss of her relationship with Michael matters less than her increasing physical need for Crishi. The description of this relationship -- seen, as is everything in this novel, through Harriet’s eyes--is painfully discreet, yet its power over her must be accepted by the reader for the novel to seem plausible. Although there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s horrific close, it may perhaps be a mesmerizing longing for a different conclusion that will keep the reader going to the end.
Jhabvala’s style has been praised for its economical elegance, and her theme of the growth and dissolution of family ties certainly has its attractions. There is, however, a creepy coldness to THREE CONTINENTS that will put off many readers who are not already bored by the cast of characters that Jhabvala has assembled. It is hard, finally, to care very much about these willfully self-destructive poor little rich kids, just as it is occasionally hard not to feel that Jhabvala’s unrelentingly low-key narrator is unnecessarily coy, not only in her description of the relation with Crishi but also in her description of the events that she says were “very long ago.” There is, though, a consistency to Jhabvala’s writing, and for those who have enjoyed the Merchant-Ivory films based on her scripts, THREE CONTINENTS may provide the same sort of pleasure.