A preteen girl stumbles across a host of dark family secrets on a visit to her parents’ native India.
Nair’s debut novel opens with its 20-something narrator, Rakhee, leaving her fiancé a note saying she must hustle back to India to resolve a family issue. The story that follows explains her rush, flashing back to when she was 10 and describing the emotionally charged summer she spent at her mother’s bustling family homestead. When she first arrived with her mother, the scorching heat was a striking contrast to the chilly winters back home in Minnesota. But while she initially misses her father and the conveniences of American life, she’s soon comforted by the extended family, especially her three female cousins. From there, things quickly grow complicated: Aunts and uncles are squabbling over the rights to manage the homestead and the family-run hospital, while her mother appears to have rekindled her romance with a childhood crush. The starkest evidence that the family is fraying is a discovery Rakhee makes when she ventures past the property: a cottage occupied by Tulasi, a young girl whose facial deformation prompted her parents to care for her but hide her away. Nair gently packs the story with plenty of commentary about Indian domestic life, mythology and, most of all, its sexist culture—throughout the summer, Rakhee learns how restricted women are in marriage, property ownership and, as Tulasi proves, the right to a public existence. Ultimately, that gives the book the shape of a melodrama, which grows overheated in its climactic scenes. But if the final chapters are driven by familiar conflicts, charming individual moments are sprinkled throughout. Scenes in which Rakhee observes her mother’s guilt over betraying her husband reveal the girl’s growing emotional acuity, and Rakhee’s relationship with Tulasi is elegantly turned, conveying a sense of magic that comes with children having a space to share secrets without neglecting the sinister circumstances that locked Tulasi away.
An Indian-American variation on a stock tearjerker plot, saved by the author's eye for detail.