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.
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.