I have learned not to trust books that trumpet their bestseller status on the cover and have pages and pages of glowing endorsements. More often than not, these books disappoint me, perhaps because my expectations have been raised by all the hype. Some are real stinkers: I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages of our last month’s book club pick Lempriere’s Dictionary with its frenetically jumping point of view and lack of any discernable plot. Desai’s book was this month’s book club pick and, while not a stinker, it has serious flaws that would have made me abandon it if I were just reading it for my own pleasure.
Certainly the language is often gorgeous. The lush descriptions of the house and garden in Kalimpong, in the Himalayas, drew me into the story. The details of the lives in the house—the leather-bound National Geographic magazines, the scorpions in the woodpile—were brilliant.
The inhabitants are Sai, her grandfather (a retired judge), and the cook (whose son Biju has emigrated to New York). Sai’s isolation among the artifacts of the past is broken by regular trips to the village, where she is tutored by one of two sisters who have retired to the village, and visits from Gyan, a young man who has been brought on to tutor Sai in mathematics and science.
How Sai came to live with her grandfather nine years earlier is one problematic area: too many threads are left dangling. The judge disowned his daughter when she married, but apparently paid Sai’s school fees after his daughter and her husband were killed. Then when for some unstated reason, the fees are not being paid, the school decides to send Sai to her listed next of kin, her grandfather. Did he stop paying the fees? Why? Why did he pay them in the first place if he had disowned his daughter? It seems as though this section was not thought out completely.
The main problem with the book is structural. Within the first few pages we get the mandatory in media res scene of seemingly-irrational violence erupting into their quiet, inwardly-focused lives: McEwan’s favorite jump-start for a plot. But Desai then abandons her plot for 200 pages of static backstory, slowly filling in the backgrounds for Sai, her dead parents, the judge, the cook, his son, and so on. When she finally picks up the story again—did I say it was 200 boring pages later?—she also picks up the pace and the last section of the book is excellent. Desai’s insights about revolution and identity, about immigration and dreams, family and the loss of the past are woven into the story of Sai’s affair with Gyan and the fate of her family and friends during the Gorkha insurgency.
Usually I dislike too many changes of point of view, but here Desai handles the switch between Kalimong and New York very well, keeping the different settings in separate chapters. The interspersed chapters about Biju’s rather predictable life as an immigrant without a green card are short and add another dimension to the concerns of the people back in Kalimpong. In fact, all of the chapters are short and cut up into even shorter segments.
As it turned out, everyone else in my book club was still mired in those 200 pages, though several said they were enjoying them and not bored at all. I ended up enjoying the book and was glad I finished it. Still, if Desai had only shortened those 200 pages to perhaps 30 pages of backstory and integrated the backstory better, this would have been a truly excellent book.