Friday, June 18, 2010

Good Summer Read

I love novels that capture the essence of the integrated American experience.This past week I have been enjoying two such books by an Indian-American author, Bharti Kirchner.

The first book is Darjeeling, published 2002.The story is woven around two sisters in tea-growing family in Darjeeling, India.Aloka and Sujata live with their widowed father and his mother and enjoy all the privileges of being from a wealthy family. They are Bengali and the rich texture of their language and tradition shape their lives. Aloka is the elder sister, and as such, will inherit the tea plantation. She is beautiful and correct in everything she does. Yet Sujata is the one with the feel for the land and the tea.She is not beautiful like Aloka but carries a passion in her that shows her inner beauty. The girls both immigrate to different countries, forced by different circumstances surrounding the same situation.

Many themes are touched upon in this book -- forbidden love, patriarchy that liberates and stifles, the contrast between owners and workers, and the immigrant experience in New York as well as Victoria, Canada. Despite all of these currents, the story moves towards a conclusion, that while not entirely satisfying to the romantic, is the best one for all.

The second book, Pastries, is Kirchner's most recent, published 2003. It is fully of the sights and sounds of Seattle.Sunya is the daughter of Indian immigrants whose father left the family when she was just hours old. Now an adult, Sunya is a masterful baker who owns her own shop, Pastries. At the time of the story, her boyfriend has just broken up with her, a big soulless conglomerate bakery is opening in the neighborhood, her mother is finally remarrying a man Sunya cannot stand, and the baker seems to have lost her touch for baking her famous Sunya cake. As she whirls from situation to situation Sunya must confront the real issue that she is carrying around -- the abandonment by her father.

Again, Kirchner explores all of these topics without going too deeply into any of them, weaving them together in a way that like the baked goods Sunya sells, is sweet and fulfilling. Refreshingly, this book is not full of tawdry sex or overly emotional angst - just a quiet path to figure out how to get her balance back. My only wish is that Kirchner, a noted cookbook author as well, had included some of the recipes to which her characters refer!

I don't know how Kirchner includes so many story lines in an ordinary-sized novel, yet covers each of them enough to keep the reader interested to the end. She also does it in a way that creates the sensation of completeness -- these are not novels in preparation for a sequel. It's a talent I wish more authors would exercise.

Both of these books are available through the Fairfax County Public Library system. If your local branch doesn't have a copy, use the HOLD function to have it sent from another branch!

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