The Golden Son — Book Review

It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you’ve made, and there’s this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of disaster you’ve left yourself open to.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Not only was it impossible to truly belong in America, but he didn’t fit in here anymore either. He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda, The Golden Son

y6481Anil Patel, the “golden son” in Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s insightful new novel, is torn between his desire to pursue an independent life and career in the United States and his obligations to his family and community in India. The story of an immigrant feeling untethered both in his adopted country and his native land is a familiar one, but The Golden Son offers a fresh perspective.

Anil, the eldest son of a prosperous landowner, is the first in his family to pursue higher education. As a child, he witnesses a baby girl, initially rejected by her parents because of a cleft palate, given “a smile as beautiful and perfect” as that of her siblings through the miracle of modern medicine — and through the efforts of Anil’s father, the wise village arbiter. Anil’s destiny is to become a doctor himself, as well as to follow in his father’s footsteps and negotiate all the disputes, minor and major, in his community.

As the successful eldest son in the family, Anil is unprepared for how inadequate he feels both in his roles as medical intern and village peacemaker. In an interview on “The Morning Show” on Canadian TV, Gowdi, the daughter of Indian immigrants, says her inspiration for the novel was her experience observing the tradition of the elder male as the family arbiter: “I thought it would be interesting to build a character who gets pulled into that type of role, perhaps when he’s not ready for it and doesn’t really want it.” In an interview with BookPage, she said:

I have long been intrigued by the Indian tradition of settling disputes within a community. I grew up hearing stories about lives that were changed: women granted divorces from abusive marriages, for example, before there were laws in place to protect them. Of course, not all disputes were settled happily, and afterward they had to go back to living together in the same community. It’s so different from the nearly anonymous, transactional way we administer justice.

The host of “The Morning Show” (who I doubt read the book) described The Golden Son as “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ meets ‘Slumdog Millionaire'”, which is a silly comparison because the only thing The Golden Son and “Slumdog Millionaire” have in common is that they both take place in India. However . . . fans of medical dramas (on screen or on the page) will love The Golden Son. The medical scenes, which take place in settings as varied as a busy inner-city emergency room, a high-tech cardiac catheterization lab and intensive care unit, the bedside of a cancer patient, and a makeshift clinic in a rural Indian village, are vivid and authentic. Gowda, who says she is “humbled by the nobility of the medical profession”, interviewed many patients and medical professionals as part of her research process. Her own father-in-law and brother-in-law are physicians.

When Anil begins a new life as a physician in the United States, he leaves behind not only his family, but his childhood friend, Leena. Her family, less prosperous than the Patels, arranges a marriage for her that turns out to be a colossal mistake. Gowda presents the story of Leena’s misfortunes as a parallel narrative to Anil’s story, building tension as the reader anticipates the moment when they come together.

The novel really develops momentum in the second half, as subplots involving Leena’s family and in-laws and Anil’s roommates, girlfriends, colleagues and supervisors all intertwine, with a surprising and satisfying ending. The novel both begins and ends with a chess game, with the game of chess as a metaphor for life recurring throughout the book. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but this isn’t an esoteric book. It’s a sincere, well-structured novel about, as the author notes, “the universal truths across cultures”.

y6482I also enjoyed Gowda’s bestselling debut novel, The Secret Daughter, about an Indian girl, adopted by an American couple, who decides to return to her birth country. A fascinating in-depth interview with Shilpi Somaya Gowda, in which she discusses both her novels, as well as her background growing up in two countries (Canada and India), her writing process, the status of women in India is available as a webcast on the Amnesty International Book Club website.












Book Thieves on the Loose

There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Irving Stone

Like many book clubs, mine celebrates the holidays with a book exchange. This event always draws record attendance — last night, a dozen of us showed up with beautifully wrapped books in hand, ready to steal from one another. We’ve done this so many times we don’t need any instructions, but we received a friendly reminder from our book club “secretary”:

Bring a wrapped book for our annual book exchange (aka STEALING Game) . . . I love the food , drink and camaraderie, but LIVE for the stealing event!

We added a new twist to our traditional “Yankee swap” rules this year: the hostess is allowed to steal any book she wants at the end of the game. We thought that was the least we could do for our hardworking hostess.

I drew a bad number (#3) but still hit the jackpot — I went home with three terrific books, because one generous member of our group bundled three short story collections together. Actually, there were no dud books to be had last night. Everyone left with a great book (or two, or three), excited to begin reading — or coloring.

The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest (Johanna Bamford) with a set of colored pencils — Adult coloring books have become hugely popular, and devotees say they induce a Zenlike state of relaxation. So when the rest of us are running around doing last-minute holiday errands, one of our group will be calmly coloring the beautiful designs in these books.

51bqo1nszfl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Almost Famous Women autographed copy (Megan Mayhew Bergman) — This collection of “off-the-radar” female historical characters is going to the top of my pile.

We Never Asked for Wings autographed copy (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — Diffenbaugh’s first book, The Language of Flowers, was a surprise bestseller; I thought We Never Asked for Wings was even better. The author visited Lake Forest in the fall; here’s the link to my interview with her: We Never Asked for Wings: Author Interview.

The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) — We’re all looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation — when is it coming to Chicago? We’re tired of watching the previews!

Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Three members brought this year’s National Book Award winner for fiction. I can’t wait to read it — I loved Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son.

23507478Villa America (Liza Klaussmann) — Historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, contemporaries of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their adventures with fellow expatriates on the French Riviera. Our hostess adored Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins — I think Villa America will be perfect for her.

Pretty Baby (Mary Kubica) — One member just received it as a birthday gift, and said it’s a great page-turner: “I can’t put it down!” Someone else in the group pointed out that she had, in fact, put it down to come to the book exchange.

51tn9o6ht5l-_sx258_bo1204203200_The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Frances Schultz) — The member who ended up with this book hasn’t made a muddle of things, but she is in the middle of building and decorating a new house, so it’s perfect for her.

Some Luck (Jane Smiley) — The first in Smiley’s ambitious trilogy covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. A little tidbit of Book Thieves trivia: One of our members grew up in the same house (and same bedroom) in St. Louis where Jane Smiley spent her childhood.

M Train (Patti Smith) — The New York Times Book Review says “Smith’s  achingly beautiful new book is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”

Brooklyn (Colm ToíbÍn) — One of those unusual cases when the book and the movie are both outstanding.

Tales of Accidental Genius autographed copy (Simon Van Booy) — The member who brought this short story collection bought it at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. She left little notes in the book, quoting the bookseller who recommended it. The author is “cute, with a great accent” and “compassionate towards his fellow humans”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which qualities are more important.)

cover-1A Little Life (Hanya Yanigihara) — Two members brought copies of this devastating and powerful book, and both were stolen three times, rendering them dead.

New Yorker magazine subscription — Magazine subscriptions are always a hit — and the New Yorker comes every week! (Plus, who doesn’t love the cartoons?)

We’ve been enjoying books and friendship for 22 years, but record-keeping has been . . . spotty. Here are links to the lists of books we exchanged in 2013 and 2014: Book Club Spotlight: The Book Thieves and The Book Thieves Strike Again.

As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Happy Holidays!




WWW Wednesday — Vacation Version

FullSizeRenderIt’s WWW Wednesday, where I (sort of) answer these questions:

What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m visiting my mother (and enjoying some beautiful weather) in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so it’s been a treat to be able to read outside. Yesterday, I spent some time on the beach, where it was fun to see real-life “beach reading” — lots of people stretched out on the sand, reading trashy books and magazines. My unscientific survey showed that 90% of the beach readers found their reading material at a local grocery store (mass market paperbacks by Danielle Steel, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Debbie Macomber) or on the shelves of their rental house (The Red Tent, The Black Swan, The Hot Zone,The Shack).

9781594633669MThe other 10% — including my niece — were reading The Girl on the Train. (One of them was reading an ARC, and I was dying to ask her how she came by it, but I thought it was time for me to mind my own business. People were probably already wondering why I kept walking by and craning my neck to see the titles of their books.) My favorite beach reader was a little boy who dug a big hole in the sand (possibly trying to reach China), then climbed in, and curled up with Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710457_lgNobody seemed interested in what my husband and I were reading, but if they had been, they would have seen that I was engrossed in The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer. I’ll be posting a full review of this wonderful book, which focuses on four siblings raised by a loving, attentive father and a neglectful mother. In today’s New York Times review, Katie Kitamura says:

How do we become who we are? There are many ways of approaching this slipperiest of questions, from the experimental rigor of cognitive neuroscience to the teasing excavations of psychoanalysis. It is, of course, natural territory for the novel, and though The Children’s Crusade follows one nuclear family, its scope is broadened by its attempts at an answer . . . After a brief prologue, in which the origin myth of the family is related in some of Packer’s best and most rapturous prose, childhood emerges as the true sacred space of the novel — not because it represents innocence, but because it might contain the key to decoding the adult self.

9780767919418Jeff’s beach book was One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson, which he’s thoroughly enjoying — even though he typically reads serious history books, the kind that have lots of footnotes. He’s been sharing fun facts with me as he goes along — for instance, that the 1920s were “the golden age of reading”. Some reviewers tend to be a little snobby about Bryson. The Washington Post disdainfully compares One Summer to a Danielle Steel novel, a Cracker Barrel pamphlet, and CliffsNotes. Lighten up, Washington Post!  A lot of us may be part of that “mass-circulation audience” who enjoy and “need more accessible, easy-to-read history”.

9781605986883My mother is not a fan of the beach, but she has plenty of comfortable reading spots at home. She’s reading and enjoying The Listener, by Rachel Basch, which I absolutely loved. Unlike so many novels I’ve read recently, every sentence in it is necessary. I feel like I read many novels that are slightly bloated . . . just a little too long, with elements that don’t contribute to the development of the plot or characters. The Listener is about our need to be known. A psychologist, the widowed father of two grown daughters, treats a college student who is confused about his gender identity. He becomes romantically involved with the mother of this student — without knowing she is the mother of his patient. Complications ensue, involving his daughters and their shared past. The resolution is not pat and tidy, but it’s perfect. I thought Tricia Tierney’s comment was apt: “Rachel is one of the smartest writers around with such a finely honed craft delivered with heart. Don’t you find yourself re-reading her sentences?” (Tricia manages events at the Westport, Connecticut Barnes and Noble and blogs at Tricia Tierney’s Blog.)

1000H-9780805095159It’s time for me to pack up and head back to Chicago — currently cloudy and 41 degrees. On the plane, I think I’ll finish reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. There’s no better time to contemplate mortality than while flying above the clouds, right? I can also indulge in a favorite travel activity, walking up and down the aisle to see what people are reading. Too bad for me that e-readers have made it much more difficult for me to snoop. I saw very few e-readers at the beach, by the way — must have been the fear of sand and water damage. I’d love to know what you’re reading — on the beach, at home, or anywhere!

Why I’m Grateful to Fiction Writers

9781410468895Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
Marcel Proust

An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.
Anne Lamott

I recently finished a 4-week creative writing course called “A Story a Day”. Do you know how hard it is to write a story a day? Every day, for four weeks, the instructor emailed a prompt. On Wednesday evenings, we met and discussed the stories we’d written during the week, as well as a story by a published author that illustrated the theme of the week — plot, characterization, dialogue, etc.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I finished this course. I still have quite a few outstanding assignments. Some of the prompts left me absolutely bewildered. I especially had a hard time with the ones that required me to move outside my “comfort zone” and write speculative fiction. I learned that my comfort zone  — would that be my imagination? — is very limited and that I am not interested in writing (or reading) speculative fiction.

What else did I learn? I learned that it is really, really difficult to write fiction. You know the little disclaimer in novels that says something to the effect of “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental”? My characters almost all have some resemblance to real people. I am amazed by writers who imagine and create unique, fully formed characters. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care if the characters are likable; I just want to believe in them. As Claire Messud said, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?'”  (That being said, it is a wonderful reading experience when a character not only comes alive on the page but makes his or her way into your heart.)

This year, I read some spectacular novels. I want to thank 10 writers (some of whom are debut novelists) for creating memorable characters and stories.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAnthony Doerr, who spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel of 2014.

Gabrielle Zevin, who created my favorite character this year, the cantankerous A.J. Fikry, in her love letter to the book business — and to reading — The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Erin Lindsay McCabe, who brought both my husband and me to tears in her debut novel, I Shall Be Near to You, a tender love story about a headstrong young woman who disguises herself as a man and follows her husband into battle in the Civil War.

Matthew Thomas, whose first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, is a masterpiece. Like Anthony Doerr, it took him 10 years to write his book.  Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters.

Laura McBride, whose debut novel, We Are Called to Rise, chronicles the lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.

E. Lockhart, who made me a convert to well-written young adult literature with her poetic and tragic novel, We Were Liars. I knew from the first page I was reading something extraordinary, because the voice of Cadence, the teenage narrator, struck me as completely authentic.9780062285508

Julia Glass, who brought some of my favorite characters from Three Junes back to the page in And the Dark Sacred Night. Glass’s characters are imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured.

Rene Denfeld, who is such a skilled writer that she made me feel compassion for a prisoner on death row, who has committed a crime “too terrible to name” in her debut novel, The Enchanted.

Thrity Umrigar, who created two unforgettable characters (an uneducated Indian immigrant and her therapist) in The Story Hour. Umrigar was also kind enough to send me a long, thoughtful email answering some questions I raised in my review of her novel.

9780062365583Sebastian Barry, who always awes me with his beautiful writing, and broke new ground in The Temporary Gentleman, the story of an Irishman who makes some wrong turns in life and ends up as an expatriate in Africa after World War II.

David Nicholls, who wrote Us, a delightful romantic comedy about a marriage that may or may not have run its course. In the words of my coworker, Max, it includes “just enough humor to counteract the bittersweet”.  The characters, especially Albie, the sullen teenage son, drove me crazy — just like real people.

Which novelists are you most grateful for this year?

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I hope you have some time to read over the long weekend!