Yet again, Muse Monthly has chosen a great book. Touching and diverse, this novel is really something. There are so many cultural juxtapositions here that it’s truly staggering that the author was able to appropriately address them all. And, perhaps, the fact that this many different perspectives are all so smoothly interwoven speaks to the fact that they coexist much more commonly than they are given credit for. The cross-realities of immigrant vs first generation American vs longer term “Americanization,” man (husband) vs woman (wife), working as a passion vs working as a job, child vs parent, heterosexual vs homosexual, and a myriad of types of friendships are explored both on their own and in combination with each other. Some of these combinations are ones that I’ve never read or experienced before and I love this book for that.
“Satyal wrote this novel from many different viewpoints. Ranjana, whose son just left for college, who thinks her husband might be cheating, who is secretly writing to express/deal with how she is feeling. Prashant, Ranjana’s son, who is in his first year at Princeton and dealing with the typical first year issues of choosing a major and getting a girlfriend. Harit, whose sister has just died and who is dealing both with his own grief and his mother’s, as well as trying to decide for the first time who he is, where he fits, and what he actually wants. And there are all the side characters we see through their eyes (who have occasional POV snippets of their own), like Ranjana’s husband Mohan, coworker Cheryl, and other acquaintances and writing group friends, Harit’s coworker Teddy and mother Parvati, and more. When the central two characters, Ranjana and Harit, meet and create their own bond, they both start to make decisions and take small chances, leading to incredibly compassionate parallel personal and sexual awakenings that will truly change their lives.
What impressed me about this novel was how effortlessly we were dropped into these characters lives, and then again how easily we were disengaged at the end. As we are introduced to each of the characters, they are immediately described as completely full – their lives already lived for years and solidly present. It was like meeting new friends…even though you weren’t there for all of it, you know they had lives and experiences before meeting you and you piece it together over time from the stories they tell. There was never a doubt for me that these characters existed prior to my reading about them. It did not seem as if they sprang into being purely for a role in this story. And the same at the end. I leave them knowing that while the written portion of their lives is wrapped up, their experiences aren’t ending. Each character, down to even those minimally present, was so tangible. Satyal’s writing truly makes you believe that these characters exist outside the boundaries of this transcribed part of their lives. I also love the way such unassuming characters like Ranjana and Harit, people just like many you and I pass by on any given day that may make no impression on us, made such compelling protagonists. There is so much depth and feeling and personal growth in this story, and it was achieved without any personality needing to be excessively attractive/exciting or negative/ugly. The relationship developments and complications are exactly the same (at base level) as those we all face daily, and the everyday [subtler kind of] courage they show in stepping outside comfort zones and taking changes is the kind that we all aspire to. Through adroitly handled small details, “any given day” providence encounters, and average-person feelings/thoughts, Satyal has created stories that will be recognizable to us all. Plus, the language itself is clear and precise, saying exactly what it needs to without unnecessary embellishment, but still managing to deliver periodic passages of great insight and beauty (I collected a number of passages and quotes that stuck out to me, illustrating this point – check them out at the end of the review.)
My one complaint is that the primary friendship, that of Ranjana and Harit, seemed to not bear up under the weight of what it supposedly helped each of them achieve. That’s not to say that it’s poorly done, I just felt that it wasn’t any more special that any of the others. And perhaps because of the pressure put on it as the linchpin of each of their “coming into their own” stories, it felt less than what it needed to be, for me. However, perhaps that is also because each of the other, smaller, friendships/relationships were so intricately wrought. As I said, no matter how small, each character (and their role) was expertly rendered. So with each of those being so well done, perhaps it would be impossible to make the primary one any better. Possibly that’s also the point – that even a non-extraordinary friendship can be the one that helps you make your change. You never know. Regardless, it felt a little strained to me. Another awkward note, Harit’s story about how his sister died seemed a little too contrived – it rang false with the rest of the story. It’s a small part of the overall plot, so it’s not a huge deal, but it felt big enough to mention.
Overall, this was a masterfully told story of humanity. Fascinating and tender in its portrayal of the daily and ordinary. Although it may not be the day to day that I know, through this novel I experienced cultures and points of view that I hadn’t before (or at least don’t normally). And it is clear that Satyal is writing (at least partially) of what he personally knows and feels, his own day to day. His knowledge of what he writes about shines through, in remarkable clarity, on every page. And it was captivating to read.”
“Real-life stories often found their way into fiction, but the opposite could be true: fiction could, cruelly, become real life.”
“If insanity were truly doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then en masse Indians represented the most dangerous of psychotics.” (This can absolutely be applied to any sub-group of people, but I really loved the phrasing and the picture it painted.)
“That was what a person was – a curio cabinet of experiences.”
“Every night, he cataloged these problems in his head and thought how much easier it would have been if one or more of them could be erased. Each one was devastating, but taken together, they created a broken man.”
“It was astounding how many times you could discover anew the same revelation.”
“In reality, it was extraordinary. And it was extraordinary that this – being here, with her – was reality as well.”
“She wanted to believe that if you worked passionately enough, you could create the appearance of something truly great.”
“[she was]…pleased to discover that you could feel a friendship’s construction if you took the time and care to notice it.”
“There was no emotion as swift and complete. Happiness spread through you and tingled. Sadness hooked your limbs and pulled them down slowly. Bu jealousy yelled hello from within you.”
“Forcing yourself to be cheery. Happiness begetting happiness. Ranjana wanted to think it ridiculous, yet that is why she had come here: to tell stories. To fabricate things. This was its own kind of forced emotion. If you had the capacity to install fear in a fictional person’s heart, if you had the capacity to shove love into a princess or fury into a winged monster, you had the capacity to generate passion or mirth or humility or patience in yourself. It wasn’t just pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard. It was through your own generosity of imagination that you made yourself great.”