The imaginary Indian coastal island of Pi, where Ganesan has set her previous fiction (Inheritance, 1998, etc.), works beautifully as the setting for this East Asian homage to To the Lighthouse, both the nostalgic recreation of a lost perfect moment and an exploration into Woolf’s “thousand shapes” of love.
The novel opens with a wedding and a death almost in the same breath. After a brief but romantic courtship, 6-foot, 28-year-old Meterling (thoroughly East Asian despite her eccentric German name) receives permission from her Hindu family to marry Archer, a dapper 4-foot-7-inch Englishman in his 40s. During their first wedding dance, he suffers a fatal coronary. Meterling is naturally heartbroken; she is also pregnant. The narrator of the aftermath, Meterling’s much younger cousin Mina, lives with a passel of cousins, aunts and uncles in her grandmother’s household of joyous pandemonium, which is not unlike the genteel chaos of Woolf’s Ramsays; coincidentally, Mina’s is a family of well-read Anglophiles, not unaware that Pi is a little like Prospero’s enchanted island. Looking back from her own adulthood, Mina describes growing up in an innocent but not unsophisticated world in which people really do take care of each other and where what is meant to be happens. So her family accepts the scandalous fact that Meterling had sex before marriage and adores the resulting baby, Oscar. But Western influence is unavoidable. Mina lives with her grandmother since her parents are getting Ph.D.s at Princeton, and eventually, she ends up in America. Yet Mina still manages to tell the story of Meterling’s unexpected second romance and marriage to Archer’s cousin Simon, with whom she moves to England. The novel is masterful at exploring the difficulty of cultural identity and integration. There’s also a bit of magical realism in the shape of a ghost. But ultimately, this is a novel about the many permutations of both love and family.
Despite some slightly strained plot twists, the characters’ genuine charm and the girlish, witty energy of the storytelling are irresistible.