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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.

 

Book 12/100: Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Oleander Girl - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

This book is essentially "chick lit" set in India. I don't particularly like that word as a descriptor as I think it is a pejorative way of classifying storylines that interest women, but it does call to mind certain tropes. And this book was rife with them -- lots of family drama, secrets about the past, a girl who isn't who she thought she was, a rocky engagement, a meddling ex-girlfriend, judgmental in-laws. The writing was not particularly good -- it often felt "overwritten" in that it explained things that were obvious, "told" characters' feelings instead of "showing" them, etc. It also seemed like an odd narrative choice to have the whole book told in third-person limited perspective, except for the sections from Kolrabi's perspective, which were in the first-person.

Still, although the dialog was stilted in places, the characters were believable and well-drawn, and the tensions between them kept me turning the pages even if it did sometimes feel as if the book was veering into soap opera territory. Where the book is strongest is in its exploration of the cultural upheaval Kolrabi experiences when she spends a month in the U.S. searching for her father, whom she believed was dead. The fear her that the West will "claim" her felt by her family and fiance back home is ever-present, as is the tension between the pull of "moving forward" or holding onto traditions, which is present on both sides of the Ocean. It also expertly captures the disruption and difficulty of maintaining a long-distance relationship -- how quickly assumptions can spiral out of control, how challenging it is for two people to be truly "present" for each other and not wholly absorbed in their separate lives occurring thousands of miles apart.

The book takes place shortly after 9/11, so there is a lot of thoughtful exploration about how life has changed for Indian immigrants in the wake of the attacks, even though India was not in any way implicated in them. I also appreciated being able to get a "close up" look of daily life in contemporary India, with its still-fraught relationships between different classes and religions. At times I had to remind myself to be patient with cultural norms that seemed outdated or overly rigid to me, especially as relates to family history, illegitimacy, etc. <spoiler> For example, I felt like Rajad was really being a prick for freaking out over Kolrabi's discovery that she had been an illegitimate child, even as I tried to remind myself that just because this sort of thing is no longer a big deal in my own culture doesn't mean it's that way everywhere. Someone being a product of his culture doesn't necessarily make him a bad person, even though I found it excruciatingly frustrating.</spoiler>

The book did keep me guessing as far as how its primary relationships would ultimately resolve themselves. I had mixed feelings about how it ultimately ended up, although I felt reassured that Kolrabi's experiences abroad equipped her to face the future with more courage and steadfastness than she possessed at the book's opening, and that, for me, was satisfying enough.