In Sharma’s world, as in Leo Tolstoy’s, unhappy families continue to be unhappy in different ways.
In 1978, narrator Ajay’s father emigrates from Delhi to New York to take a job as a clerk in a government agency, and a year later, his family joins him. Ajay’s mother had been an economics teacher in India and must now adjust to lower career aspirations, while Ajay’s older brother Birju experiences some academic success in middle school and qualifies to attend the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his new high school, he has an accident—he hits his head in a pool and stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage that lasts throughout his life. This accident changes the entire dynamic for the Mishra family. First, they have to determine how to take care of Birju, and they eventually decide to buy a new home and have live-in help, a situation made more feasible when the family gets a $1 million insurance settlement. But the father becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stresses brought about by Birju’s medical needs, and the mother winds up taking a job in the garment industry for minor wages. Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be the academic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high school class—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes an investment banker. Along the way, he becomes enamored with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories about his family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—a style Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel.
A moving story of displacement and of the inevitable adjustments one must make when life circumstances change.