The author begins Desirable Daughters with the tale of her ancestor, the Tree-Bride, and then takes the reader along on a journey from Calcutta to San Francisco, New Jersey and Bombay. The 36-year-old narrator tells her husband, "there is one thing I may be capable of: I have stories to tell." What Story Circle member wouldn't agree with that?
National Book Critics Circle Award winner Bharati Mukherjee wrote this novel from the point of view of Tara, youngest of the three beautiful Bhattacharjee sisters, all born on the same birthday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, into the last generation of Calcutta "high society." The three sisters attend an exclusive Catholic convent school, protected from the outside world physically, morally and psychologically: "We are Bengali Brahmins from Calcutta, and nothing can touch us." Despite the best efforts of their parents, however, all three girls leave the safety of home and family.
This book reads like a fictional memoir with Tara looking back on her youth in India and marveling in the present at having become "a California girl". As she uncovers layers of deception and finds herself and her family in mortal danger, it becomes a mystery and suspense story.
Tara earns an MA and is planning on graduate school in Paris, London or New York when her father announces he has found a boy for her. For Tara, love meant duty and obedience. "My life was one long childhood until I was thrown into marriage," she says. She marries Bishwapriya "Bish" Chatterjee and moves to the Silicon Valley, where they becme wealthy after Bish develops a phenomenally successful computer process called "CHATTY." For Bish, love meant providing for your wife, children and parents, and receiving status and honors. Bish is the "poster boy of Indian entrepreneurship", but the family's wealth becomes a liability when a sinister character enters their lives.
After ten years, the unthinkable happens Bish and Tara are divorced. She moves to San Francisco with their teenage son, Rabi. Tara volunteers in a preschool and soon falls in love with Andy, a Hungarian Buddhist contractor and yoga instructor. For Andy, love means having fun with one person for a very long time.
Tara often talks with her sisters and parents, but no one brings up unpleasantness. Their sons are always acing tests, gifts received are exquisite, and all are doing the usual things year after year. When a young man shows up at Tara's home looking for her sister Padma, whom he claims is his mother, Tara refuses to believe him. The young man is relentless, and Tara is forced to find the truth behind the facade erected by her family long ago. Padma left for New York as a young woman, and for years, her family knew very little about her life. Parvati, the middle daughter, met her Indian husband at college in Boston. Theirs is a love match and a cause for concern within the family. Neither of her sisters will discuss the family scandal with Tara, who cannot understand their clinging to the old ways. And they find her brash American attitude insulting.
Mukherjee skillfully moves the story back and forth between the dying society in India where Tara grew up and her American life with Rabi and Andy. When Tara decides to tell her stories, she writes about the Tree-Bride and the class of Calcutta girls born a century later. Bish does not understand. "What is the value of a passing moment?" he wonders. "What is the value of groups marked for extinction?"
"Their beauty," she answers. The layers of meaning in that simple statement kept unfolding for me long after I finished reading the book. "Groups marked for extinction" could apply to animals, plants, cultures, religions, and classes of people all over the world. "A passing moment" must have value, for what is life but a series of passing moments? May all who have stories to tell believe, like Tara, in their beauty.
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