The book has been on my desk for a few weeks now. I follow the author and her agent on Twitter and won an autographed copy in a giveaway. Waiting for my laptop to finish updating, I picked it up and started reading.
Getting to bed well past midnight, the thing that struck me about the book was how well crafted it was. On the surface, it is about theimmigrant dilemma. It uses many of the same tropes that we see related to Indian American authors. There is the nod to family, to complex sibling relationships, to past loves. What I loved about the book is how well Gowda strings those threads. The characters are optimally used, and when you think the events are tending towards the stereotypical, she uses them to explore feelings and move the story. Most importantly the book does not linger where we would expect it to. The writing is fresh and real. Gowda paints the semi rural India well and I put the book down thinking this will translate to the screen well.
In the mood for a narrative that spans cultures, touches upon immigrant dilemmas and is refreshingly real? Pick this book.
I started What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman after dinner. I settled in, a throw over my lap, the baby monitor humming by my side. The story hooked me, reeled me in and kept the pace up. When the monitor awoke with angry cries, I pleaded with my spouse to pick her up. When even breathing sounded minutes later, I went back to the book and checked the time. 10:17 PM read the clock. I leaned back and got caught up with Clara and Izzy. The story reminded me of train wrecks and accident scenes. The kind you cannot look away from. You watch and absorb every gory detail because you are fascinated and repelled by it. Wiseman’s portrayal of Willard and the treatment of inmates is akin to that. You read, fear snaking through you. You read, knowing she is going to be broken again and again. You read, fearful that you may never get the ending you are hoping for.
With Izzy, you know she is walking into a trap and yet there is nothing you can do about it. You are locked in with her, straining and reliving her nightmare. Relief when it appears towards the end of the book is sweet and a little too late. You close the book, shut your eyes and think. You head to bed, bleary eyed at a half past midnight and lie. Sleep eludes you because you are still in Willard and Ithaca as you wait for the darkness to claim you.
The writing is powerful. It is clichéd in many places. It is lush and thick and vibrant, assaulting you with more than you can handle. Yet, it works. It works because of the interweaving of stories, the juxtaposition of the old and the new. It is strangely reminiscent of the Orphan Train. Both stories follow a similar arc. One traces the horrors of orphans while the other deals with ‘homes’ for the mentally ill. Both are about people who are marginalized and how our society treats them. Both feature a young girl looking for answers to her past in the memories of a generation before. Both are touched by adoption and reunion. Yet, both stand alone as distinct pieces because of the way they tell the story.
If you are in the mood for a good read, pick What She Left Behind and have a box of tissues handy.
I pick my books the way I browse the grocery aisle. I scan, double back and pick things that call my name. I also scan the ingredient list carefully looking for markers that signal ‘that’s not for you’. I also hate to go shopping so I make sure I load my cart up when I do head out. Why am I talking groceries in lieu of books? Well! every once in a while I trawl through best seller lists and check out the library’s recommended reads. I read reviews on amazon and then look for the books on my library’s online portal. More often than not, the books have a waitlist and I end up putting the maximum number of books on hold possible.
Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive was one such book. I saw the comparisons to Gone Girl and I read the reviews that screamed that the book did not match up. Yet, I felt compelled and I am glad I did. The book starts out innocently enough. I was starting to tire of the name dropping and the obsession with brands when it hooked me. It was 11:30 PM on a weeknight. One more chapter I plead to myself. It was 2:30 AM when I was done leaning against the vanity of my daughter’s bathroom, the over head fixture providing mellow lighting. When I closed my eyes, the tiny screen of the phone was outlined against my eyelids.
The story traces a suburban teenager through a horrific school experience and how she makes it through the cutthroat world of online publishing. On first read, the story is gripping enough for you to keep turning the pages. But it is two days after that I keep going back to the plot. The things left unsaid. I wonder about the back stories. I wonder why her parents were distant. I wonder why her mother pushed her into a school that was clearly outside their league. I love that there are hints of stories in the background and the author lets us imagine the underlying tensions without spelling them out.
The protagonist’s actions seem forceful and out of character till you are near the end and then they seem to make sense with startling clarity. This was a character I could not relate to. Her background, her upbringing, her reactions to what happened to her were all so far away from the life I inhabit, yet I was invested. Invested enough to plough through the book overnight. It helped that the book was set practically in my backyard. I have traveled in the trains she rides. I have passed the landmarks she mentions several times. It perhaps helped bring the book to life and reminded me that the setting is a powerful a character in a book as the characters themselves.
In the mood for some great writing and an uncharacteristic plotline? Pick Luckiest Girl Alive. You will not be disappointed.