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A Good Indian Wife: Good, Culture Clashing Read

September 2, 2011

A Good Indian Wife
Anne Cherian
W.W. Norton 320 Pages

Neel likes his life in San Francisco. He’s an anesthesiologist at a busy hospital. His romance with Caroline, a secretary, is kept discreet and uncomplicated. He has a few Indian friends in his social circle, but mostly he’s thrown himself into an American life: eating steak, dating a blonde woman, and ignoring his parents pleas that he should marry a nice Indian girl and settle down.
But, when a visit home to see his ailing grandfather turns into a chance for his family to bully/dupe him into an arranged marriage, he’s furious, and saddled with Leila, his new bride. Leila, for her part, has to deal with her own innocent romantic notions, traveling to a new country with a husband who falls very short of her romantic ideals. She’s been raised to be a good wife, and to expect a good husband in return.

I was uncomfortable reading some of the start of this book. Neel’s a jerk. Granted, he’s forced into a situation I can’t even imagine- suddenly, he’s married, against all his wishes, and the life he’s created for himself is thrown all askew. But reading about his anger, however justified, and the pre-existing romance he tries to conceal from his wife and family… made me both uncomfortable and furious. I don’t like reading about awkwardness or deception. And the situation created plenty of both.
But– because the author spent plenty of time establishing Neel and Leila, both, as nuanced characters, I found I could stick with the book. (After, I confess, a slow start, and yes, I peeked to the very last few pages to see if things turned out romantically okay for the couple.)

Also, I appreciated the book for its brightly colored, tasty descriptions of Leila’s Indian life and culture she grew up with. Spicy, fragrant food, and brightly colored silk saris. Spiced dosas fried in oil, hot pickled mango chutneys. Yum! Written so it’s easy to visualize across all the senses, a tasty sort of literary tourism. That was another reason I felt so set against Neel as a character- here is Leila, beautiful and beautifully described, coming from a family life full of wonderful things, to an unwilling union with a bachelor in his surly silences and sparse bachelor pad. From the way Leila was described, I was half ready to fall in love with her myself, and kick Neel liberally in the shins.

Shag/Marry/Cliff: Shag. (But throw Neel off a cliff, or at least dangle him over it a bit to scare him.) Possibly shag after a date for Indian food. I’ll be leaving this book here in Edinburgh, because I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading it again, though it was fun.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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