REVIEW: A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian

a good indian wifeFormat:  Trade Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Indian Lit
ISBN:  0393335291
Published:  2009

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

“Neel Sarath, an Indian-American anesthesiologist in San Francisco, believes he’s distanced himself from traditional Indian life with his blonde American girlfriend, his Porsche, and his spotless, Pine-Sol-scented condo. But after his family tricks him into coming home for an arranged marriage, the newlyweds surprise each other. Neel discovers that Leila Krishnan, the woman who becomes his wife, is not a meek, traditional girl who can be set aside while life goes on as usual, girlfriend and all. Leila is a literature teacher from the small town in South India where Neel grew up, and she knows more about the world through her books than Neel has ever learned in his single-minded study of medicine. Leila, too, finds that being married to the distinguished Dr. Sarath is more difficult than she anticipated, maybe more than adjusting to a life outside India.” Neel and Leila struggle to reconcile their own desires with the expectations of others in a story of two people, two countries, and two ways of life that may be more compatible than they seem. In A Good Indian Wife, Anne Cherian explores what happens when complicated people get married first, and have to woo each other later.

My Thoughts:

So many reviewers point out all there is to dislike about this book, and they’re not wrong. Neel is a sanctimonious, pompous jerk. He is ashamed of his heritage and desires to be a part of the (specifically white) upper crust society in the US, despite the fact that there is really very little to envy. He is a control freak who has carved out every detail of his (American) life with deliberate exactness…cultivating an Everyman accent, wearing the right clothes, living in the right ZIP code, having the right car, developing relationships with the right people. And, having been rejected by the “right” woman (a white, blond, upper class woman from a rich Southern family), he carries on a not-so-clandestine relationship with another blond woman…not that he would marry her, as she is beneath him in both status and education. He equates all that he has acquired with class and worth, and he has no understanding of what constitutes true class and worth.

It’s a interesting thing, to see how much control families continue to have on their offspring, even when they’re adults and live not only in a different country, but on a different continent. Neel is a control freak, yes, but he comes from a family of control freaks, and he is an amateur compared to them. In his efforts to separate himself so completely from his Indian heritage, he seems to have overlooked some crucial aspects – especially regarding the arrangement of marriages – that render him a married man at the end of a momentous trip to India. And not only is he married, but his private plans to leave his new wife in Indian and return to his old life are thwarted (and likely deliberately so). As much as I relish the fact that he was beaten at his own game, this type of jockeying for power in families is just ugly…even when (or perhaps even moreso when) it is a cultural imperative.

I like Leila, Neel’s wife. I like that she has fire in her belly, that she is not afraid (much), that she is intelligent and educated. I like that she represents the reality of what Neel is seeking, and I find it repeatedly hilarious that he fails to see her – really see her – because the “packaging” is all wrong. But her family is just as bad as his, and despite her fiery nature and outspokenness, she is controlled with an iron fist and the threat that her behavior is the controlling factor on whether or not shame is brought on their entire family. That is a crippling, and potentially soul-destroying responsibility to put on anyone.

The thing is, Leila is a good girl. She deserves better than Neel, and she knows it, but the control her family has on her – even from a continent away – keeps her in the marriage, even as she finds out more and more about his duplicity. What I find utterly upside down is the fact that staying in a marriage with a philandering jackass of a husband somehow brings less shame than leaving. I’m not saying it wasn’t (or isn’t) reality in the Indian culture (and many others), but I am saying that it shouldn’t be…that a woman’s value is much more than her attachment to a man. Sure, Leila is redeemed in the end. She does eventually win his heart, but why does she want it? She is smart enough to recognize the freedom and privileges of her life in America. She doesn’t want to go back to her life as it was before. And yet she stays.

Here is where Anne Cherian has a tailor-made opportunity to write a strong, female Indian character…not strong because she endures indignities, but strong because she fights back against them. I wanted some of that fire she had to demand better from Neel, rather than simply outlast his bad behavior. And ultimately, Neel is unconvincing as a changed man, suddenly miraculously devoted to Leila. He is weak and vain. He is seduced by appearances. And though he DOES finally do the right thing (though it is far too late in my opinion), I as a reader am left thinking that it’s just a matter of time before he will succumb once again to the generic “Americanness” (or at least, as he defines it) of another gold-digging, home-wrecking bimbo.

There was so much potential here. Cherian’s characters could have been rich and complex, but they weren’t. They could have played against the stereotype, but they didn’t. I could have loved the book. I really wanted to, but I didn’t.

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Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

interpreter of maladiesFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Short Stories
ISBN:  9781565119321
Published:  1994 (book) / 2004 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Navigating between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of cultures and generations. In “A Temporary Matter,” published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth, while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession.

Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed this collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I love anything that is set entirely or partially in India, and this was no exception. Lahiri is a gifted writer, and she is good both as a novelist and a short story writer. In this collection, she very effectively told stories of misfits (or characters who felt like misfits), who through choices or reasons beyond their control, experienced profound sadness, loneliness or disappointment in their lives. Her title was well chosen as a result, and though it was the title of one story in the collection – a story of a man who interpreted the maladies of patients in a doctor’s office – it was appropriate on a larger scale as well, since Lahiri herself was “interpreting maladies” in a way.

My favorite story of the collection was the final story, entitled “The Third Continent.” This one, ironically, didn’t seem to be in the same vein of the others for two reasons: 1) it was less about the malady than about the loneliness of living in a place where you know no one, and 2) it has a happy ending. In some ways it doesn’t necessarily “fit” with the rest, as the tone throughout is entirely different from the rest of the collection, but for whatever reason Lahiri included it, and its placement at the end of the book is ideal.

REWIND! Had to Have These Books, but They’re STILL Languishing on the Bookshelf…

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

Everyone is welcome to join.

Just link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out your list! If you don’t have a blog, just post your answers as a comment. Have fun with it! It’s a fun way to get to know your fellow bloggers.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday Topic:
REWIND!!
Top Ten Books I Had to Have…but are STILL Languishing on the Bookshelf
(click here for original post)

  1. The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson
    I bought the audiobooks when they were first released because my husband & I were both interested in them, and we listen to audiobooks together on road trips.  They are still on the shelf almost a year later…one road trip this year, and not long enough for even one of those books.  Sad.
  2. A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khalid Hosseini
    I bought the audio version of this and The Kite Runner at the same time.  Listened to The Kite Runner and LOVED it, but have not gotten to this yet.
  3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
    This set has been on my shelf for at least 10 years, and has followed me through several moves.  I purchased it with the conviction that I should read it, because it’s an incredible shame that I never even knew they existed when I was an adolescent.  Still there…still waiting…
  4. Hearts in Atlantis & Insomnia by Stephen King
    I have loved Stephen King since I was in 9th grade, and have devoured 30ish of his books over the years.  For some reason these never made it past the bookshelf, and I eventually got rid of both, though I have since re-purchased Hearts in Atlantis in audio format.  The last several King books I’ve “read” were actually listening experiences, and that is proving to be my preference lately.
  5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
    Purchased for a book group read, I had grand hopes of finishing it.  I barely got started, and with the distractions of a new baby and home renovations, it was abandoned and is still on the shelf.  I haven’t discarded it, so there is hope that eventually it will make it into the pile of current reads.
  6. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
    I bought this book when it was causing a stir on the book scene, and it sat on the shelf for years.  I finally sold it to the used bookstore, only to repurchase in audio format.  Still there, but I’m hoping to get to it this year.
  7. The Bourne Series by Robert Ludlum
    These sat on my shelf for years until I finally sold them when I was getting ready to move out of state.  They were a recommendation from my brother, and for some reason I never got excited about reading them, even after having seen the movies.  They are still on my TBR list, so hope is still alive that I will read them one day.
  8. Everything Monica McInerney has written
    McInerney is an Australian author, and I stumbled across her books Family Baggage and The Alphabet Sisters through http://www.dearreader.com.  I devoured those books and started looking for more, only to discover that the rest of her books had only been published in Australia.  Thanks to my online book club, I had a contact, and over the next year I exchanged books with her…she sent me the McInerney books I couldn’t get in the States, and I sent her book club selections that were difficult for her to find.  I have read a couple more of them and I love them, but I hate the thought of finishing the and having no more to look forward to, so I space them out.  Silly, I know, but sadly true.
  9. Complete sets of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway
    For some reason, I thought I needed “the complete set” of whatever classic author was on the radar at the moment.  So I bought them…in fact, I bought the book club editions, which have virtually no resale value when one decides to part with them.  I have not parted with them, but I’ve not read them either.  They do, at least, look good on the bookshelf.
  10. The Space Between Us & If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar
    I have been on an Indian literature kick for the past couple of years.  It’s not a constant pursuit, but when I find Indian novels that look interesting, I can’t resist buying them.  Not only did I purchase these, but I bought The Space Between Us at full price, which is almost unheard of for me.  They are still on the shelf, and I will get to them, but I signed myself up for all these reading challenges this year…

Updates 6-5-12: 

  • My husband and I (finally) listened to the first Larssen book – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – last year on a road trip.  We loved it, and we’ve been saving the other two until we can listen together.
  • I listened to This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald last year.  I recognize how good Fitzgerald always is, but I didn’t love the book.  So four down…
  • Listened to For Whom the Bell Tolls last year – well, half of it – and I thoroughly enjoyed the half I got through.  It is a long and heavy book, and after 9 discs, with 9 still to go, I needed some lighter fare.
  • I got rid of the Stephen King books (both heavy hardback editions), and I have Hearts in Atlantis on my audio shelf.  I doubt I will ever read Insomnia unless I get a renewed interest in all things Stephen King.  I’m still a fan, and I have read enough of his books to know that I’ve (likely) read the majority of his very best work already (The Stand, The Green Mile, The Tommyknockers, It, Salem’s Lot, all of his books from the 70s & 80s).  What I haven’t read (and still want to read) is already on my shelves (Lisey’s Story, Hearts in Atlantis, On Writing, some of his short stories / novellas).
  • I have added to my collect of Monica McInerney books as they have been published in the US, but have not (yet) gotten back to them.  I’m sort of savoring the memory of what I have read so far, and enjoying the anticipation of reading more.

That’s it!  More updates to come at some point…hopefully…unless I get sidetracked with some other wonderful book.  Too many books, and not nearly enough time to read them all.

REVIEW: Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Format:  Paperback, 322 pages
Genre:  General Fiction / Indian Lit
ISBN:  038548951X
Published:  January 2000
Setting:  Calcutta, India / San Francisco CA

Rating:  4 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

From the award-winning author of Mistress of Spices, the bestselling novel about the extraordinary bond between two women, and the family secrets and romantic jealousies that threaten to tear them apart.

Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family of distinction. Her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of that same family. Sudha is startlingly beautiful; Anju is not. Despite those differences, since the day on which the two girls were born, the same day their fathers died–mysteriously and violently–Sudha and Anju have been sisters of the heart. Bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend, the two girls grow into womanhood as if their fates as well as their hearts were merged.

But, when Sudha learns a dark family secret, that connection is shattered. For the first time in their lives, the girls know what it is to feel suspicion and distrust. Urged into arranged marriages, Sudha and Anju’s lives take opposite turns. Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household. Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. When tragedy strikes each of them, however, they discover that despite distance and marriage, they have only each other to turn to.

Set in the two worlds of San Francisco and India, this exceptionally moving novel tells a story at once familiar and exotic, seducing readers from the first page with the lush prose we have come to expect from Divakaruni. Sister of My Heart is a novel destined to become as widely beloved as it is acclaimed.

My Thoughts:

This book is a continuation of my love affair with Indian literature.  Divakaruni delivers in a sublime fashion, developing a story that is rich not only in Indian setting, culture & lifestyle, but also in multi-dimensional characters whose strengths and weaknesses are understandable and relatable.  How many young women, growing up in a generation rife with privilege and (Western) influence, do not seek to find their own places in the world, even if it means stretching (perhaps to the breaking point) the constraints, cultural requirements (and even taboos) of previous generations.  Anju & Sudha both try to do this in their own ways, and yet, when they are faced with making a decision to pursue happiness, they find the personal cost too great.

In some ways, I found both of these women ridiculously frustrating.  I thought Sudha was weak and selfish.  I I thought Anju was rebellious and smart-alecky.  That Sudha would not allow herself the happiness of marriage to her only love was something that made me nearly scream in frustration…until (at the end) he proved to be unworthy.  That Anju followed through on an arranged marriage when she learned her betrothed loved someone else equally frustrated me…because he was untrustworthy and she knew it.  In the end both of their lives were nearly shattered by these decisions.  And yet, it was very obvious that these (naive) decisions were (eventually) the catalysts that gave them strength to change their lives…to protect their loved ones, to reconnect with each other, and to allow for understanding and forgiveness to take root and grow.

On Reading Patterns

I ran across this post on The Broke & the Bookish and immediately realized that I am a pattern reader.  There are times when I could call it a rut, because I get into a mood for a specific type of book, and I can’t seem to break out of that rut until I have read several in a row.  It has happened for as long as I can remember

There was the Rosamunde Pilcher phase, the Maeve Binchy phase, and (yes, I’ll admit it) the John Grisham phase.  Granted, in each of these there are some stellar books…and some stinkers.  I’ve read most of both categories, and everything in between.

Obviously I am not alone in this behavior, as the post that inspired this one does attest.  Unlike the author of that post, I don’t get in a holiday phase (though I do enjoy the occasional Christmas story).  Like the author, however, I do get in noticeable ruts, for which there is no particular explanation except that, well, that’s the mood I’m in.  So, you ask (or maybe you don’t), what rut…er…pattern is it now?  There are two that seem prevelant for 2011:

  1. Classics:  Though this was purposeful, directed reading, I have read close to a dozen classics this year, which makes it a banner year for me.  I’ve been enjoying them a lot, not only because they are filling the gaps in my reading history, but because they are, for the most part, damn good books.  I’ve been gratified with each classic to see that there is an obvious reason it has gained classic status, and I’m looking forward to continuing this particular reading pattern into 2012.
  2. Asian / Indian Literature:  I have been fascinated by both Asian and Indian literature for the past several years, and as a result I’ve read several Chinese & Japanese authors and several Middle Eastern or specifically Indian authors.  I have loved them all.  There is something very intriguing about these cultures that, in each and every instance, has sucked me in from the very beginning of the book.  If you are wondering which books are on my list (so far), here they are (in no particular order):
    The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
    Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama
    Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
    Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
    The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
    The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa
    Balzac & the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
    Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
    Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
    Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
    The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan (currently reading)

I’m curious!  Does this happen to anyone else…well, other than me and the author at The Broke & the Bookish?  Is there a type of book you can’t seem to get enough of?  A particular author?  A genre?  I’d love to know, and to have a recommendation for my next reading tangent (or rut).