Jenny is the stereotypical career woman: steely, high-achieving, ambitious, and a perfectionist. She gives a slight whiff of the woman who turns her nose up at all things feminine. At the very start of the novel, she meets her co-worker Diana, a great fan of Kartini, Indonesia’s pioneer of women’s rights and women’s education. Jenny dismisses Diana’s idol, saying that Kartini is too old-fashioned. Immediately after this, things start going south for Jenny. She is skipped over for promotion at work (unfairly, she thinks), her tough, equally alpha mother has a stroke, and her long-estranged father re-emerges into her life.
Basically, Jenny’s life is ripped from its foundations. As a rule, perfectionists are not good at dealing with failure. They’re not even good at dealing with surprises. I should know, I have some perfectionist tendencies. So we watch Jenny have something of a crisis. She doesn’t know what to do about her career, she expresses shock at her mother’s “weakness,” she doesn’t know how to sort her mother’s bakery, and she especially doesn’t know what to do with her father’s arrival. So she takes the easy route and avoids all the troubles altogether. Another chance meeting with Diana, who is still trying to convince Jenny of Kartini’s merits, has Jenny agreeing join a historical tour of Kartini’s life in the Javanese town of Jepara. It is during this tour that Jenny is somehow transported to the past and finds herself face to face with Kartini herself.
So yes, a time travel story. So very, very easy to get wrong.
I’m all for color in the lines, by the book, think inside the box novels. Especially when you need a comfort read. As a quick, easy read, Kota Lama & Sepotong Cerita Cinta delivers. The pages turn fast and it’s easy to visualize scenes. Hakim’s description of Javanese towns and the local cuisine are effective and accessible. So much so I thought with a bit of effort she can easily transition to a travel writer.
Another thing I appreciated was the way Hakim wrote Jenny’s mini-breakdown. Like I mentioned, I can be a perfectionist myself and Jenny’s reaction to events really rang true. Even the pattern of avoidance behavior made me cringe since I do the same myself.
Despite finding good things to say about this novel, I also found some great flaws. The biggest trouble of all was how I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. How on earth did Kartini’s sister buy the “I’m from the future” excuse in less than five minutes? Additionally, what I know about Javanese aristocracy is that mainly they are a socially-conscious lot. There’s no way Jenny could have hung out so freely with Kartini and her sisters. Sure, Kartini was ahead of her time, but would she really make friends so quickly with a suspicious stranger?
Because I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, I found the novel artificial and unbelievable during the time travel portion. Which was very unfortunate, as the time travel is the bulk of the novel. Even the small interactions and dialogue between Jenny and the Kartini sisters rang false, which in turn makes the revelations Jenny finds about Kartini feel unearned.
It almost feels like Kota Lama & Sepotong Cerita Cinta would be better off without the time travel. Either that or the time travel portion should be longer, fleshed out more, developed more. That’s probably my own personal preference talking though. I think my suggestions would make the novel a slow read and not everyone enjoys that.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel but didn’t adore it. I needed an easy read and it delivered on that front. I’m just not sure if it stands head and shoulders above other quick, easy reads.