What a potent theme–The Other. Is all literature written by someone standing outside in the rain with her nose pressed up against the windowpane? The great French philosopher/writer, Simone de Beauvoir, saw Man as The Human, Woman as The Other. With this setup, she noted, the chances for a soul-sustaining experience of Love were seriously compromised: “On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself -- on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life . . .” (The Second Sex).
Cherian concerns herself here with the way the lives of four people play out, all but one of whom hail originally from India, four friends (two couples) who reunite 25 years after their graduation from UCLA. In college they called themselves the Gang of Four and included a fifth hanger-on in their circle. As Indians living in America, they are definitely The Other, trying, as immigrants, to adapt to a vastly different culture, new mores, and behaviors, while somehow squaring their actions with their traditions, religion, cultural beliefs, and habits from the old country.
Couple Number One: Frances and Jay were considered a love match; he defied his parents’ expectations by picking his own bride and marrying well beneath his station in life. Did they marry because he felt obligated after dating for a year? Possibly. They have three children, including an underachieving teenager who they see as a “disgrace to the race.” Interestingly, both of them appear surprised that they have not achieved more in their careers. He’s in middle management and she’s in real estate. It’s a struggle to maintain a middle class existence. They feel like failures.
Couple Number Two: Lali and Jonathan represent the intermarried (he is Jewish). He is a Harvard cardiologist and she works in the English department as a secretary. They have one son who wants to take a year off from Harvard–unheard of in the immigrant Indian community. They fell in love in college but now Jonathan is taking an obsessive interest in his own religion and they are becoming more and more estranged. Lali thinks of straying. . . .
Couple Number Three: Vikram, the hanger-on and Priya, whom they only meet in the present. Vik is the quintessential Aspergian nerd who meets with fabulous success. Coming from the humblest of beginnings, he personifies the ideal immigrant success story, having founded his own computer company. He has all the trappings of success, including a huge McMansion overlooking the water, and is very conscious of competing with the Joneses. Of all the friends, he is the most unwaveringly traditional, adhering to an Indian code of behavior almost without deviation. He agrees to an arranged marriage, has two sons, and plans to bring the eldest into the business regardless of what his son thinks about it.
This cast of characters is united by an invitation to Vik’s son’s graduation party and the novel closes with another invitation, a surprise to the readers. Within this frame, we learn about the dynamics of each family, with flashbacks from the present to the college days.
Gradually we see that the absolute need to preserve Indian values while assimilating to American culture has forced most of these characters into withholding crucial information from their respective spouses. These secrets prove the undoing of some. It is clear that no amount of assimilation to American ways can undo childhood enculturation–we are shaped by our origins, inescapably shaped. A prime example is Vik himself who the others proclaim is unremittingly stingy despite his great wealth.
The story unfolds neatly, told through shifting points of view, and all in all, it’s smooth going down. Familiar themes abound: generational divides, skewed expectations regarding children, immigrants overcompensating, gossip and jealousy among expatriates, the vicissitudes of marriage. There are no big issues tackled or radical ideas, but rather a made-for-TV quality. The identity crises are more focused on how to save face within the Indian expat community than in how to fit in with American culture.
Women in these marriages remain The Other, powerless to change their husbands’ perceptions, reduced to hiding important facets of themselves from the men nearest and dearest to their hearts. Only one, Priya, takes charge and succeeds in imposing her will, but in a 50’s passive-resistance kind of way. Sadly, the husbands do not always seem to know what good devoted wives they really have.
Cherian offers her readers a fascinating peek into her own culture (she’s the product of a Jewish/Indian marriage), spotlighting some of the well-guarded secrets of men and women, and their destructive force, as she ultimately stresses the universality of family, love, marriage, and friendship.