I'll admit I don't have huge experience with Asian literature, particularly Indian literature. I have read and loved both of Jhumpa Lahiri's novels "Unaccustomed Earth" and "Interpreter of Maladies" (both five star), and most recently fell head over heels in love with "Cutting For Stone" (reviewed tomorrow) which had traces of the Indian culture. So I guess in this area I am 3 for 3, so I was more than excited when our Skype book club chose "Mango Season" as our next selection.
Synopsis: Priya, a successful young woman, is returning to her family in India for the first time after having lived in the US for seven years. Her goal in the reunion is to inform her parents that she is engaged to an American man. Her parents' goal in the reunion is to arrange a proper Indian marriage for their wayward daughter.
Priya approaches her visit with ice cold fear. In the world of her very traditional parents and grandparents, one must marry within their religion and caste, preferably in their early twenties. Anything else is cause for disownment. While Priya recognizes that her family can be fiercely prejudice, she also loves them dearly and is terrified she will be forced to choose between them and the man she loves.
She arrives in the heart of mango season, when her extended family gets together to make mango pickle en mass, while they fight, gossip, and plan their children's lives. It is in this environment that we learn about the Indian culture and views towards marriage, women, proper courtship behavior, the importance of carrying on the family name, and the resistance to change.
My thoughts: This book was a very quick read, and was written in a very conversational prose, first person from Priya's point of view. I was drawn in from the very beginning and finished it in about a day with ease.
For a number of years, I worked for a boss who was a Sikh, and I know fully well how he felt about caste and marriage and women, and he had exposed all of us to his food and culture. Even with that experience under my belt, I still learned a great deal about the Indian culture. Some of it was fascinating, some of it was shocking, but if I can walk away from a book knowing more than when I started, I consider it in some form a success.
This novel revolved a great deal around food. The book includes recipes as well as very colorful descriptions about flavors and aroma and textures. It acknowledges the distinct connection between memory and food and emotions.
But I was also repelled by the behaviors of Priya's family. They were mean-spirited towards a woman who had married into the family and was not their caste. They bullied another woman to continue having children until a son was born. They picked on one woman who was less than beautiful, past acceptable age, and had not yet found a match. There was histrionics, bickering, badgering, and frankly some of it made my stomach and head hurt. I realize every family has its issues, but I was saddened to think that women are still treated this way. I had a hard time liking these people. I was proud that Priya stood up for herself and the other brow-beaten women in the family, and I do realize they sorta all came around in the end, but I couldn't forgive them for their mental abuses.
I also had to shake my head at what I would consider to be a cheap trick in the form of a twist near the end of the book. I actually laughed out loud, but not a happy laugh. I thought it was contrived and cheesy. I don't mind that this "twist" wasn't resolved at the end of the book...in fact my mood was better off for it. I couldn't take more family fit-throwing.
So where did that leave me? Right smack on the fence. There is much to admire and appreciate in the story, if you don't mind the drama.
3 out of 5 stars