Book review: ‘And Laughter Fell From The Sky’ by Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Fresh from a commune, living at home and unsure of his next move, twenty-something Abhay is adrift when he runs into Rasika, the older sister of an old school friend. She’s attractive, put-together, posh — everything Abhay knows he isn’t. But he can’t deny how easily the conversation flows between them, filled with the indecision and not-knowing of life as a modern twenty-something. Especially for the Indian-American pair.

Though Rasika enjoys seeing Abhay and treasures their candid conversation, she knows she has a part to play: that of the loyal, dutiful Indian daughter, a woman who would never disgrace her conservative family. And though she occasionally enjoys “seeing” men, the 26-year-old Rasika knows the path that’s been set for her: an arranged marriage. And Abhay knows it, too.

But as the story moves from Ohio to India, from duty to desire, from family to forging a new identity, the pair must make hard choices that could spell lifelong happiness or eternal regret.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s And Laughter Fell From The Sky, a modern story paying homage to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, was an engaging, fulfilling read — one that started slow but gradually picked up pace until I was hanging on by fraying fingernails.

Rasika is Sreenivasan’s stand-out character: a woman torn between two very different worlds. There’s her traditional side, her very Indian side — the one in which she does as her parents ask. Obsessed with the fineries of life, Rasika knows her good job and social standing are crucial to maintaining her image. But spin around and see the rebellious, hiding-a-smirk-behind-her-hand Rasika: the one that understands her family’s viewpoints but doesn’t agree. That side that sneaks around behind their backs, shimmying out of her skirt when they’re not looking. The Rasika that wants to do only as she wishes.

I could relate to that, honestly. Um, not in a tawdry way (though Rasika isn’t) — just in the way that we all wear different hats, so to speak, and represent different things to different people. While outsiders might views arranged marriages with a skeptical eye, Rasika is very respectful of her parents’ wishes — and knows this arrangement would make them happy. Though Abhay is a charming guy, a nice kid, it can’t go anywhere. Besides, they’re not equals . . . not even in America. The die has been cast.

Or has is it?

So much of And Laughter Fell From The Sky centers on tension. Sexual, romantic, familial, job-related . . . obligation and love and obsession are all cast into one flavorful stew, and Sreenivasan’s thought-provoking novel is the main dish. Beyond the “getting to know you” exposition in the beginning, the novel’s pace is brisk and reflective. I felt the plot could veer in any number of different directions, which kept the experience fresh for me. And I really felt I’d climbed inside the heads of Rasika and Abhay, muttering under my breath when they were acting stupid.

Because they just did sometimes. Act stupid, that is. I was often frustrated by the pair and wondered why they couldn’t just work things out, though Sreenivasan did an admirable job of explaining cultural conventions and the perspectives influencing their decisions. So even though I wanted them to just fix things, I understood why it was far more complicated than that. And I liked that there were no easy answers.

Fans of contemporary fiction, second-generation stories and glimpses of modern families will find plenty to ponder in And Laughter Fell From The Sky. Though the story occasionally raised my blood pressure, I found it realistic — and you know, I just really liked it. It worked for me.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062105760 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Secret Daughter’ by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Doctors Somer and Krishnan felt fortunate to find one another — and their tireless medical work in California left little time to think about starting a family. But when Somer decides she’s ready to get pregnant, the pieces don’t come together. It’s the first time she feels as though she’s “failed.”

Halfway around the world, Kavita is huddled in a birthing tent in her rural Indian village, preparing to give birth to her second daughter. Knowing her husband, Jasu, won’t be pleased unless she returns with a precious son, she makes the heartbreaking decision to give her little girl up for adoption. Kavita makes the perilous journey to Bombay to leave her beloved, Usha, at an agency there; it’s the only way she can be assured the child might survive.

A year or more goes by before Krishnan brings Somer, his American wife, to India — his homeland; the world his family still calls home. They arrive to bring home Asha, the child they’ve both longed to welcome into their lives — the missing piece to complete their family.

Over the course of several decades, the lives of two couples will blend as they’re united through their love for one woman — one secret daughter. And their journey together is anything but simple.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter is an epic voyage across time and cultural lines, trying to define what it means to be a family — linked either by familiarity, background, blood . . . or, simply, by love.

Though I really enjoyed Asha’s journey into her heritage and her attempt to discover the truth about her early life, I’d be untruthful if I didn’t admit that, for the majority of the book, I found her to be a disagreeable character. I empathized with her quest for truth, but it seemed like she took every available opportunity to remind Somer that she isn’t her “real” mother. She never says this, no, but Asha constantly sulks about how Somer just doesn’t “understand” her the way her adopted father, Krishnan, does. When Somer complains of feeling like an outsider in her own family, I could see what she meant. And it was sad.

But Somer didn’t always seem like she was trying. Over the course of the years she and Krishnan are together, I could see them drifting apart . . . and I wasn’t sure who was really at fault. Maybe no one — or everyone. Somer seems to isolate herself — but Kris allows her to be isolated. As Asha grows and pursues a life that takes her closer to her birthplace, Somer seemed resigned to just . . . let it all happen.

Hopping around the globe to Kavita and Jasu, their lives were filled with unimaginable peril as they left the comfort of their village for Mumbai, where they can only afford a small hut in the slums as Jasu tries to find a job to support them. I’m fascinated by Indian culture and the lives of its billion-plus residents, but reading Gowda’s novel was heartwrenching. I enjoyed Secret Daughter most when we were spending time with Kavita, a woman who proves what a resilient, tough heart she has. I can’t begin to process the things she has seen and experienced, and my heart ached for her as her only son, Vijay, grew in unexpected ways. Nothing in her life seemed to go as planned.

Every path in the novel seems to be headed to a meeting point — a place of union; a release, a resolution. As the book progressed, I turned the pages faster and faster to learn of Asha’s fate — and what would become of her fractured family. Secret Daughter provided a solid perspective on the adoption process from both sides and, though I didn’t particularly like some of the characters, I got a good feel for them and sympathized with their plights.

Full of amazing sensory detail and colorful descriptions of life on two ends of the globe, Gowda’s book paints a realistic, memorable picture of life for two families — and the daughter who unites them. Though I wanted to engage more with Somer and Krishnan and hoped for stronger character development, I still enjoyed Secret Daughter and was pleased with its resolution.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

‘Slumdog’ is sweeping

Slumdog Millionaire posterAfter getting Oscar-winning song “Jai Ho” stuck in a perpetual loop in my head last week, my parents and I decided to head out to the movies to see “Slumdog Millionaire,” a gritty and moving account of a young man’s rise from poverty to fame in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, India. I haven’t stopped thinking about the film since I saw it Saturday!

Jamal, our protagonist, travels around the country with his brother eking out a hard-scrabble income and looking for his long-lost love, Latika, a childhood friend whom he was viciously separated from years before. After he finds Latika only to lose her again, Jamal tries out to be on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” titled “Kaun Banega Crorepati.” He doesn’t for a minute believe he’s going to win — he just knows that Latika will be watching the show with the rest of India, and he’s desperate to find her. And he does — after a series of twists of destiny that simultaneously bring them together and pull them apart. But ultimately bring them together again.

Jamal and LatikaI can’t say exactly what I loved about this film — it was just as that all the elements combined to create a poignant work that had my head spinning. I’ll be frank and say that the violence in the movie was disturbing — and there were several scenes I never saw coming. I was on the edge of my seat with worry, really, and I had to keep reminding myself it was just a movie . . . it was just hard to watch such devastating things happen in quick succession.

But the story has a happy ending.

Ultimately, the movie was about hope — and it was about destiny. Some of the seemingly unplausible plot points of “Slumdog Millionaire” can easily be traced back to this idea of fate, the knowledge that “it is written.” Latika and Jamal find each other in a city of more than 90 million residents because they’re supposed to find each other. Oh, I love fate! 🙂 The love story here was spectacular, and really sweeping. When Jamal finds Latika and floats into her kitchen like a ghost to wrap his arms around her, I definitely had tears in my eyes. Actors Dev Patel and Freida Pinto were amazing — and that scene was so beautiful.

“Slumdog” picked up a massive haul of eight Academy Awards Feb. 22, including the award of Best Director and Best Picture. I saw fellow-nominee “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” back in December and really enjoyed it, too, and recently thought that perhaps Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s stunning film should have won. But while I liked “Button” and was completely engrossed in the story and cinematography, I’ve definitely thought more about “Slumdog” since leaving the theater. The film has opened widely in many areas (hey, including Southern Maryland!) and I would absolutely recommend it. Just bear in mind that it’s rated R for a reason — definitely no one younger than 17 should be there. And be ready to avert your eyes if, like me, you can’t stand the gritty stuff.