With the wind gusting and the temperature in the teens, it feels like a fall day, so I can really enjoy my cup of chai tea while it is still steaming. It seems like it will be a good day to curl up in the afternoon and read, which fits perfectly with what I was hoping to do today.
My book group met yesterday to discuss Tell It To The Trees by Canadian author Anita Rau Badami, and it was a big hit. This novel is set in the fictional town of Merritt Point in northern British Columbia, where winters are long and fierce and the isolation can be devastating. Told in multiple voices, the story begins with the discovery of a body frozen on the roadside, then moves back in time to explain the events and conditions leading up to this death. The Dharma family have lived in Merritt Point for decades, ever since Mr J.K. Dharma brought his young bride there from India to settle down, and there they have remained. With J.K. deceased, Vikram, his son, is head of the household, which consists of Vikram’s ailing elderly mother, Akka, his daughter, Varsha, his second wife, Suman, and their young son, Hemant. His first wife, Helen, was killed in a motor accident while she was trying to run away with another man. Shortly after her death, Vikram went back to India to find another wife, and discovered Suman, a 30-year-old woman who, well past prime marriageable age, was charmed and flattered by the attentions of this attractive widower. In short order, they married and six months later, she arrived in a cold, desolate climate with no money, no family and no friends. Soon after her arrival, she learns of Vikram’s true nature, as the rage and need for control lead to abuse and ridicule. But what is she to do? He not only abuses her, he also abuses his own daughter and their son. Her only ally is her mother-in-law, Akka, but what can she do for Suman, since she is bedridden and has no money of her own? Unable to drive, with no friends, and completely isolated, Suman is at her wits’ end, until the arrival of Anu, a woman who has come to rent the cottage in the back of the Dharmas’ large property. Needing to escape her own failed marriage and wanting something completely different, Anu leaves her job in New York to try her hand at writing for a year. She remembers Vikram from their shared university days, although she never knew him well. Until her arrival, whenever they had secrets to tell, Suman, Varsha, and Hemant were advised by Akka to tell them to the trees, the trees will keep the secrets safe. But Anu represents the outside world, and brings a fresh perspective to the dysfunctional situation in the household, and she quickly becomes everyone's confidante. Her visits and conversations, though, must be hidden from Vikram, for his sense of ownership of his family does not allow for outsiders. As the events unfold, we are drawn into the complex relationships that exist in this family, and with Varsha, Suman, Hemant and Anu each narrating alternating chapters, we are privy to the intimate thoughts and experiences of nearly every character, which is both interesting and, at times, downright creepy. All of my ladies loved the book. I had a new member join the group yesterday, and she also thought it was a great read. We all agreed that it was so compelling that it was a real page-turner, which made it also a quick read. What follows are some of the highlights of our discussion. We thought that winter was a character in itself, as well as isolation, both the isolation imposed by the location of the town, but also the self-imposed isolation of the family members, a form of protection and also a way to keep outsiders out of their world of hidden abuse. We felt that this setting was important to the story, as well as the time period, as it was set in 1979-80, when there were more issues with cultural isolation than there are now. Someone suggested that Varsha seemed to invite punishment from her father, seeing it as the only way he would show her any attention at all, attention she craved, particularly after her own mother abandoned her when she was just a young girl. We loved the writing, and felt that some of Badami’s descriptions were wonderful: Anu describes Varsha as a “malevolent spider” and Hemant as a “troll”; Varsha describes her father’s voice as “warm… like toasted marshmallows”. The complex emotions involved in abusive households are subtly explored in this novel, and while we wonder why Suman doesn’t just leave, we also understand why she can’t just go, why there are no simple solutions to this complex problem. We thought that perhaps Anu was too trusting, that although she suspected Varsha of malevolence, she wasn’t aware of the extent to which she would go to protect what she thought was hers. I read a review of this book in which the reviewer suggested that Badami gave too much away and made too many obvious connections throughout the story so that there was no mystery left, an obviousness that “undermines what would otherwise be a well-crafted portrayal of a family in shambles, and an accurate, if stereotypical, portrait of abuse” (http://www.quillandquire.com/review/tell-it-to-the-trees/). I asked my ladies if they agreed with this view, and we all felt that there was still plenty of mystery left in the book to keep us turning pages and cringing at each new account to the very end. It was definitely a successful discussion, and I would highly recommend this novel as a good choice for just about any book group.
I also read a Young Adult novel last week, Love is a Four-Letter Word by Canadian author Vikki VanSickle. I've been reading quite a few titles recently that I would consider to be "guy" books, books that I would classify as such because, while anyone could read and enjoy them, the main characters of each were male. These titles include Devil's Pass, Little Brother and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. VanSickle's book is one I would consider a "girl's" book, because the main character is, as you might guess, a young girl. I have never read anything by this awesome writer, whose books have been nominated for numerous awards, but I'm definitely going to read more of her works now. Love is a Four-Letter Word tells the story of Clarissa Delaney, a young girl who, nearing the end of grade 8, discovers an ad for auditions for a community production of The Wizard of Oz. This is one of her favourite stories, and she has always dreamed of becoming an actress, so she convinces her best friend Benji to audition for this upcoming play along with her. Unfortunately only Benji is cast, and Clarissa must find a way to keep her disappointment in check while being supportive of her friend's success. She has other things on her mind, too. Her mom has completed treatment for breast cancer and seems to be getting better, but until she is declared to be in remission, Clarissa will continue to worry. On top of all this a classmate, Michael, seems to be interested in more than just friendship, but she is not sure she feels the same way. Will she find a way to figure this out without hurting their friendship? This very readable, interesting and accessible account of Clarissa's days is sure to appeal to intermediate girls who have enjoyed Words That Start With B, the first book that features Clarissa, or anyone who enjoys realistic fiction about the struggles with love and friendship, mothers and daughters, and dealing with disappointment. I look forward to reading the first book soon, and following it up with Days That End in Y, the third in the series.
And I finished listening to an audiobook version of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, which tells the story of a family, also from India, who end up making a life in America, and explores the ways in which different generations adapt to a new culture without losing their own traditions. I am feeling “all posted out” and so will not go into great detail about the plot of this book, but it was an interesting listening experience for me and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction with a cultural twist. As an aside, I just read that this is Lahiri's first novel, which was originally a novella that was published in the New Yorker; this would explain why I thought the narrative seemed a bit uneven at times and the plot seemed without a specific focus. This did not, however, significantly detract from my enjoyment of the novel.
Whew! This was a much longer post than I expected. Enjoy the rest of the day!
Bye for now…