Through shifting viewpoints, this roving saga about immigration, sacrifice, and fate explores the consequences of making difficult decisions for the sake of one's family.
Having abandoned his premedical studies, Sunil Chandaria is a philosophy graduate student at Harvard, stumped by the prospect of finishing his dissertation on the origins of moral beliefs. His mother, Urmila, runs a struggling gift shop with imported goods in her local mall in Ohio. And Premchand, his father, remains at a distant remove from them both, by turns baffled by and enamored of his son's American lifestyle. When he immigrated from Kenya to Columbus, Ohio, Premchand sought career and financial stability in a medical practice, ultimately creating an unbridgeable cultural gap between his family's two generations: "Premchand's own absorption...had made him lose sight of the fact that in America a child could grow up to be anything. He had not presented his son with any options. Premchand had not known himself what they were." Ultimately, however, it's one of Urmila's decisions that shakes the family to its core, setting off a series of events both tragic and mundane in the U.S. and overseas. Acker's debut is a carefully drawn portrait of a family constrained by choices that reach back generations, from the patriarch's resolve to leave India to seek work building a railroad through the Kenyan plains to Sunil's desire to marry longtime girlfriend Amy, an ambitious scientist who doesn't meet with his mother's approval. In many ways, this is a novel of ideas, and Acker draws heavily on philosophy and histories of British colonialism as her characters parse out the meaning of their decisions—or their inability to make them with clarity and freedom. This sensibility makes for a book grounded in the head, rather than the heart, but it also gives Acker's characters more room to behave in very human ways, whether stubborn, small, or cruel. It's a rare but honest look at the way parents, children, and spouses talk to one another but don't always hear what's being said.
A thoughtful, deeply researched debut.