Desirable Daughters was recommended to me years ago by a bookstore coworker. I finally got around to reading it.
About the Book:
Tara Chatterjee is happy enough in her current life. She and her teenage son, Rabi, live in San Francisco, where they moved after Tara’s divorce from the man her father choose for her. Her ex-husband, known as Bish, is a heavyweight in the Silicon Valley tech scene, and he and Tara have remained on good terms.
The youngest of three, Tara has one sister (the middle, Parvati) in Bombay and another (the eldest, Padma) in New Jersey. Theirs is a traditional Brahmin family from Calcutta, governed by strict rules and conventions that the sisters, even thousands of miles away from their parents, find it hard to stray beyond. They seem locked into their roles, unable to bridge the gaps that have existed for so long.
Then a stranger shows up at Tara’s door, telling a story that — if true — would bring a decades-old family secret tearing through the sisters’ lives. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Tara begins pushing at boundaries that have long been in place. In doing so, she opens old wounds, reaches new levels of trust and intimacy with her sisters and son — and places all of them in grave danger.
In some ways, Desirable Daughters felt like two different books. On the one hand, there’s the potentially dangerous mystery Tara pursues to uncover the truth behind the stranger’s story. On the other hand is the family drama: the relationships between Tara and her sisters, the sisters and their parents, Tara and her son, Tara’s whole family and their peers in India; the customs of a traditional Brahmin family; the struggle to adapt traditional ways to new lives and situations. Honestly, it kind of felt like Mukherjee wanted to explore the family angle but needed some kind of plot, so she threw in the mystery to give the novel some structure.
The mystery side was fine, I suppose. Perhaps some readers would require it in order to keep themselves engaged. But to me, the shifts between the two components felt jarring. It also felt like the mystery side was an afterthought and, as such, didn’t have enough room to really grow into a believable plot line. Given more focus and room to develop, a few more twists and false leads, it could have grown into a proper thriller, but as it was, this aspect felt far-fetched.
What I really liked were the family parts. Mukherjee really digs into the relationships, expectations, history, culture, and stories of Tara’s family. She illuminates, more clearly than any other novel I’ve read, the dynamics of a family like Tara’s. And that alone was plenty interesting for me. Had the novel simply been about Tara overcoming the culture she’d grown up with in order to form closer ties with her family members, I believe I’d have enjoyed it just as much (if not more).
The writing in Desirable Daughters is smart and the characters are well differentiated. I particularly liked Rabi, Tara’s teenage son. It’s he, more than anyone else in the novel, I wanted to see succeed. And though we don’t actually get to see him grow up, I have a feeling he’ll be fine.
I’ve read one other by Bharati Mukherjee: Miss New India. It, too, delved into social and cultural themes, though in a more outward-looking way (as opposed to the more family-focused Desirable Daughters). Mukherjee does seem to have a talent for bringing broader issues to bear in a way that doesn’t overwhelm her characters, which I appreciate.
The Verdict: Mediocre
I liked Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee well enough. There were aspects I could take or leave, but what I really liked was the exploration of Tara’s family within the matrix of Indian society and with respect to the individual members. If that kind of thing intrigues you, you might want to give Desirable Daughters a try.
What novels have you read that do a particularly good job exploring some “bigger” issue without overshadowing the smaller story within?