In this debut novel, a wealthy American woman adopts an orphaned Indian boy to alleviate her sorrows.
In Varkala, a coastal village in southern India, 8-year-old Birendra’s beloved mother and only living parent suddenly dies. At the urging of the Nairs, his elderly neighbors, Birendra drafts a letter to his aunt and uncle in West London, with the hope they’ll come for him. When 15 days of mourning pass with no return letter, the Nairs drop Birendra off at an orphanage in Trivandrum, the state capital of Kerala. It is here where 39-year-old Madeline, an American interior decorator to the stars, takes a detour from her relaxing seaside resort to a local orphanage in an attempt to heal her heartache by becoming a mother. When she meets Birendra, she’s smitten and promptly adopts him. But Madeline spends more time contemplating throw pillows for her affluent Southern California clientele than parenting her new son, whom she calls “Bindi,” a name she deems easier to pronounce. At Bindi’s Bollywood-themed ninth birthday party, Edward, Madeline’s brother, is alarmed by his sister’s narcissism. “He had to admit: this was a party Maddy had thrown for herself. To show off the beautiful boy she’d ‘saved.’ " If Maisano’s intent was to interrogate the fraught process of international adoption, the book falters. Aside from Birendra’s aunt, the luminous Nayana, few characters have depth. The exceedingly obedient Birendra stoically accepts his circumstances. Madeline’s fantasies about motherhood via overseas adoption seem outlandish, even for the Angelina Jolies of Tinseltown. A more sympathetic and familiar adoptive parent would have done far more to drive home the author’s point. Edward may possess the conscience his sister lacks, but like Madeline, he, too, embodies the stereotypical savior. What’s missing here is a more scrupulous study of the role of privilege in international adoption and a rigorous examination of the American colonization of brown children, cultural erasure, and appropriation.
Well-intentioned but imperfectly executed.