The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Summary: Estha and Rahel are twins born eighteen minutes apart in India. When they are seven years old, their cousin Sophie Mol visits from England; a cataclysmic event happens which tears the family apart. Estha and Rahel are reunited again years later as adults, and must deal with the fact that when they were young, their lives were destroyed by the “Love Laws”, which lay down the rules of “who must be loved, and how, and how much”.

My Thoughts: No summary could do this book justice. Winner of the 1997 Man Booker prize, Roy’s novel completely blew me away. I was bored by the synopsis on the back cover, but thought I would give it a try anyway (not that I had much choice; I was in Guatemala with a very limited number of English books).

Roy creates a lush, enveloping, buzzing, and foreshadowed world in The God of Small Things. She tells the story out of chronological order, and continuously references the event known as The Loss of Sophie Mol, a mysterious happening that everyone tiptoes around. There are flashbacks and tangents all over the place. Webs of stories and snippets of life spread out everywhere. Even now, after finishing it, I’m not sure how she pulled it off. It was a delicate net that settled down over me. And it worked. Perfectly. Tragically.

I wouldn’t describe many books as A Work of Art, but The God of Small Things definitely was.

The God of Small Things is about love, and forbidden love, and class, and betrayal. There is also history and politics, smoothly woven into the background of India, where the story takes place.

Highly recommended. Strange and different from anything else I’ve ever read. Another best book read in 2011.

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: In the stunning title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father who carefully tends her garden–where she later unearths evidence of a love affair he is keeping to himself. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a couple’s romantic getaway weekend takes a dark turn at a party that lasts deep into the night. In “Only Goodness,” a woman eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in “Hema and Kaushik,” a trio of linked stories–a luminous, intensely compelling elegy of life, death, love and fate–we follow the lives of a girl and boy who, one fateful winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome.

My Thoughts: I was never a big fan of short stories, and before Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, I mostly only read anthologies of short science fiction or fantasy when I did have to read short stories.

Interpreter of Maladies, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was such an intense and wonderful introduction to Jhumpa Lahiri’s work. Wow. I remember how melancholy, beautiful, and heartbreaking every story made me feel. Lahiri immediately became one of my favorite authors.

When I heard she had a new collection of short stories coming out, I pre-ordered it. I finished the Unaccustomed Earth about a month ago, and it did not disappoint. I still like Interpreter a bit more just because that first introduction to a brilliant author’s writing can’t really ever be topped, but Unaccustomed was a great follow-up.

I’ve heard some people say that her stories are much too depressing, that she’s got the same mood and tone in every story, but I highly disagree. “Depressing” is too shallow and commonplace a word to describe her stories. They are more multi-faceted. Extreme joys and total disappointment can be present in the same sentence. Many of the situations her characters end up in seem really realistic.

I think it was the third story, A Choice of Accomodations, that made me feel like I had the briefest glimpse into the life of a real couple, not just some pretend characters. I lived there life for 15 minutes, and felt and experienced everything they did. Lahiri uses very plain language, nothing flowery or maudlin or over-the-top. The simplicity of her style underscores very well all her intentions.

Highly recommended.

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Rating: 6 out of 10
Summary: During World War II and the last days of British occupation in India, fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of attending college. But when her forward-thinking father is beaten senseless by the British police, she is forced to live with her grandfather’s large traditional family, where the women live apart from the men and are meant to be married off as soon as possible.

Vidya’s only refuge becomes her grandfather’s upstairs library, which is forbidden to women. There she meets Raman, a young man also living in the house who relishes her intellectual curiosity. But when Vidya’s brother makes a choice the family cannot condone, and when Raman seems to want more than friendship, Vidkya must question all she has believed in.

Commentary: If you couldn’t tell from the summary, this novel ends up being a very gung-ho feminist power, education yay book. Not that there’s anything implicitly wrong with that… But it seemed a little too blunt and obvious for my tastes. The message gets a little preachy and overshadows, at times, the characters and the plot.

The protagonist, Vidya, is a likeable enough character. Her relatives are nicely villainous, and her family’s situation is sympathetically pitiable. An ethnic Cinderella–she even finds a lovely prince.

I wish there’d been a little more depth–but perhaps good for the younger reader.