In the wake of reading The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, and struggling to review a book that blew me away with its depth and meaning, I thought I'd tackle her mother's book, Fasting, Feasting. It is also a book that I've seen featured on the AP Literature exam, and I wanted to read it so that I knew what I was recommending to my students. Thankfully, it was an intriguing read, and once again, not an easy one to recommend in short.
Synopsis: Centered around the lives of one family and their children, we see the affects of culture on the choices one makes for their life. The daughter of the story, Uma, is continually scorned at every turn. Not only is she pulled from school so that her brother can continue with his own future endeavors, but she is also an unattractive, undesirable young woman that cannot seem to land a husband, regardless of the dowry offered. In fact, people come out of the woodwork to take advantage of the family's desperation to marry off their daughter, to which Uma must be repeatedly saved, only to then return to her parent's home to be their veritable slave. Uma is treated as a second-class citizen at ever turn.
On the flip side, Uma's brother Arun finishes his schooling and is sent to the United States to go to college. During one lonely summer vacation, the socially inept young man is forced to live with the white family of a friend they knew in India. Rather than seeing Arun struggle to merely negotiate the strange cultural pitfalls of living with a meat-eating family, we are privy to the pitfalls that cause every bit as many separations between the family members as the forced pressures of his home culture.
Review: In both stories, between Uma and her brother Arun, we see the irony of the ideal situation set upon these characters. What happens to someone who is "supposed to" marry and have a family and does not. What happens to someone who is "supposed to" get an education and live happily ever after with a great career and the happiness that its money is supposed to bring? For Uma, although she is unable to find a husband, we are shown the ironic, unhappy situations in which her prettier sister and cousin are placed in when they both marry. Both women end up with unhappy marriages, going to show that marriage might not be a ready answer to a woman's happiness. With Arun, although he is attending college in the United States (an opportunity seen as highly desirable), where choices are seen to be free and almost whimsical in nature, he is exposed to what one might call a "normal" family that is actually filled with dysfunction.
I could see the direction Anita Desai was taking us as she wrote her stories about this brother and sister, raised in a culture full of ironies in the postcolonial present. We can readily see the sad pressures placed on women and families to marry, and to marry those that one's family and culture dictate. And even in the case of good marriages, there can always come heartache and turmoil. These themes should not seem foreign to anyone reading the novel, regardless of the culture one comes from. It's easy to see that Desai does not simply make "America" the ideal. The distance between the family members in the story also highlights the ways our own culture pulls families apart.
Overall, I did find this novel to be terribly sad. I did, however, have to read this in just a couple of sittings, because I was haunted by the myriad ways that a culture and family can pressure those they love into paths that create unhappiness. While not an uplifting book, leaving us without possibilities drawn out by the author, I can still say that I found it's meaning and points to be provoking. Really, quite a good story. I know that I will not forget Uma anytime soon.
(This book also counts as my third in the 1% Well Read Challenge.)
***Book purchased for personal use and review.
For more information see: Fasting, Feasting.