The stories are all about women who went to college in India and now live in the US, either because they got married to "green-card-holder" men, or because they came to study here. Familiar ground, and familiar bits of dialogue. All the participants had arranged marriages,although in a couple of stories a younger woman is contrasting her own lifestyle with her parents' arranged marriage.
The characters in the book seemed to live in a mysterious sort of time-warp -- although the situations and details were contemporary, their behaviour was often what I'd associate with - an earlier generation than my own (or perhaps I malign that generation too). For example, even the most conservative women I know wouldn't dream of saying 'She needs to be beaten' if they saw an Indian woman wearing a backless choli at an Indian party in the US. (beaten?!) Or the story about the high-powered skirt-wearing career woman who felt so superior to and alienated from the sari-wearing wives around her -- there were _no_ other women with careers who wore western clothes in northern California, of all places?
Indian men come off badly in the book. In all but one story, they are self-absorbed, insensitive, mean, wife-abusers, servant-rapists, or just plain unpleasant. In the single exception, the man dies :-). Oh yes, there is one story in which the husband is relatively pleasant to his wife -- he encourages her to build a career and so on -- but even he is blase about a woman who is being forced to undergo an abortion in India because the baby is a girl. "It's a man's world in India", says he, complacently, implying that his wife is lucky to be married to him and out of India. Seems like an awfully one-sided portrait of - Indian malehood to me.
The stories have varied endings, uppers and downers, but the uppers are often pretty impractical. One woman plans to bring her friend (the one who is being forced to abort) to the US on a student visa. The author/narrator are apparently unaware of any financial or INS problems involved -- the narrator and her husband are having financial difficulties as it is, so how are they going to show financial support for the friend, get her admitted into college, pay for her airfare, get her visa, and all this longdistance to Calcutta, against the wishes of the woman's family? Another woman who has problems getting along with her mother announces she's going to study in the US. Not so simple -- the cost of GRE, college applications and airfare is far beyond the means of your average non-working middle-class Indian woman. In many other ways the stories bring out the practical problems of isolation and lack of financial independence for women in arranged (and other) marriages, so the facile treatment of other problems is irritating.
The characters were pretty stereotypical -- the women with kids wore saris, had bulges around their waists, and did not work, while the career women were either unmarried, or had no kids, and were slim and westernized. Fat was generally associated with marital and parental status -- one woman even became slim after she separated from her husband, for goodness sake. Where are the single working women who like Carnatic music and samosas, or the married women who are computer engineers and have two children? They have arranged marriages too.
I thought the women were more realistic than Bharati Mukherjee's, but that's not enough.(*) The imagery (much touted in several reviews) is pretty tortured and is generally reminiscent of the kind of writing taught in convent schools in India. The best I can say is that the stories are pleasantly written and do not demand much mental effort on the part of the reader.
[* -- I wrote this review years ago when my experience with Indian fiction was quite limited. Now that I've read a little more (Feb 2000) I'd say the characters are more modern than Mukherjee's, but not necessarily more realistic. Mukherjee's women are unlike any I've known, but are sometimes intriguingly original, while Divakaruni's are a composite cliche :-).] -
One of the short stories, 'A Perfect Life', really touched me. This one was depressing, and left me wondering about all the children here in the US and around the world who feel betrayed by someone because of things they can't understand, such as the law. Anyway, it gave me something to think about (looking into the whole foster parent rountine) and that's what I consider to be a good piece of literature - it sticks with you for a while.
Whereas  looked at these stories from a caste and class viewpoint, I didn't think of that at all. In The Maidservant's Story, I thought that it was apparent how the woman of the house was caught in the struggle to treat her maidservant with respect and dignity while the rest of the house was representing how society treated her. Everyone else in the house treated her with spite and disrespect merely because she was a servant and, especially after hearing what she used to do, treated her like a whore. While you are right that there was no voice for the maidservant, that was just the way the story was told. From the sister's point of view. But we see the anger of the maidservant when she encounters the family in the car. I felt a lot for the maidservant, her struggle to get away from her family and her society. And her loyalty to the mother was apparent when the husband approached her in her room. But what we have to remember is that the story was not written from the maidservant's point of view and therefore we have no way of learning what she really feels.
I met [Divakaruni] as someone who works for a SA woman's organization in California, deeply concerned and active in aiding SA women. So I found a deeply concerned, very articulate, and highly involved social activist and of course a writer. So I am sure my opinions are a little colored by my meeting. About the 7 Eleven story--I thought it revealed the way in which violence can enter one's life suddenly and dash all our hopes and expectations. This story, in fact, showed how arranged marriages can lead to good relationships. The two fall in love, the husband encourages his wife etc. About what she would have to face in North India if she went back was not that far fetched. The woman's background indicated that she came from either a village/small town where donning a widow's garb, shaving your head etc. is. not, I think that unusual. Why should it be considering the manner in which the Roop Kanwar case was showcased as the right thing for a widow to do--commit sati. The part I thougt was too pat was when she very quickly decides to live on in America and make her dreams come true. That, I found a bit unrealistic and idealized but I still liked the story.
I did not find the stories as offensive and mediocre as many on sawnet did. They weren't the most exciting and brilliant pieces but I thought they did capture a certain slice of life.
Book Description: For the young girls and women brought to life in these stories, the possibility of change, of starting anew, is both as terrifying and filled with promise as the ocean that separates them from their homes in India. From the story of a young bride whose fairy-tale vision of California is shattered when her husband is murdered and she must face the future on her own, to a proud middle-aged divorced woman determined to succeed in San Francisco, Divakaruni's award-winning poetry fuses here with prose for the first time to create eleven devastating portraits of women on the verge of an unforgettable transformation.
More about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
[Fiction] [Reviews] [Bookshelf] [Sawnet]