Monday, May 21, 2012

The Invitation by Anne Cherian

Cherian writes such thought-provoking and compelling accounts of the Indian immigrant experience in the United States. The Invitation, allows her the opportunity to present four different accounts of this experience. The book recounts the varied experiences of Jay, Frances, Lali and Vikram, four friends who met in the 1970s while pursuing graduate degrees at UCLA.  Frances is a Goan who was raised to believe in love matches and who schemed to find a way to study in the US.  Jay grew up in a wealthy Indian family that wanted him to return to India and work for a family friend and accept an arranged marriage. Having resisted that pull, he has struggled economically in the US. Jay and Frances had easier initial transitions to the US than their two friends but twenty-five years later the former "golden couple" which united the foursome is struggling both personally and professionally. In contrast, Vikram, the nerd who was one of the first to leave his small village in India and who embraced an arranged marriage, has been wildly successful in America. He built a successful computer company and sent his son to MIT--Mighty Indian Triumph. Lali took a totally different path, after a young sexual experience made her believe she would not be a suitable match for an arranged marriage, and moved to San Francisco and married a white man. While she has the trappings of success-- a Harvard-educated cardiologist husband and a son enrolled at Harvard--she is at a cross roads as an empty nester and feels disconnected in her marriage when her husband rediscovers his Jewish roots.   The four friends are forced to examine their divergent choices when Vikram sends out an invitation to a graduation party for his oldest son.

I love reading about different cultures especially Indian culture. I was particularly excited to read about the Goan experience, as my former roommate's family is from Goa and I've always wanted to learn more about her culture.  Cherian is able to explain so much about the different castes and cultures in India through this one constrained narrative. The novel also vividly depicts the varied experiences of first generation Indian Americans and the conflicts between their dual cultures.  For example, Vikram's son has followed the path his father has outlined for him and been a good dutiful Indian son.  He studied hard, got into MIT and graduated with honors. But he has grown up in the US and wants to pursue his own passion.  Jay and Frances's oldest, Mandy, was once a gifted student but is floundering academically as she faces the stereotype that all Indians perform well.  That one idea was something I wanted to read more about. I wish the story had given even more attention to the experiences of the children, possibly providing some of their own voices.

My other criticism is that I wanted more from the ending of the story.  It was wonderful to see the four friends interact with one another twenty-five years later. And I understand some of the choices the author makes in terms of why she chose her open-ended closing, but I still longed for more of a neat wrap-up. Overall, I highly recommend both of Cherian's novels.  I was left wanting more closure for the characters, but I found them to be incredibly well-drawn and realistic.

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