Click here to read reviewer Carole McDonnell's take on Desirable Daughters.
Bharati Mukherjee’s Desirable Daughters is yet another example of this author’s unusual talent, an approach to storytelling that is at first deceptively simple but builds into a skillful and complicated portrayal of Indian-American life. What begins as a piece of family lore, the tale of an ancestor known as a “tree-bride”, finds meaning in familial ties.
Three Bengali sisters grow up in Calcutta in a family of the highest class, outwardly “three peas in a pod." Convent-taught, each has lived an exemplary life in Bengali society, two of them, the eldest and youngest, immigrating to America as adults. Tara, the protagonist, is divorced from her billionaire husband and raising a teen-aged son. Didi, older than Tara by six years, resides in New Jersey, pursuing an outwardly glamorous life as a performance artist while her husband basks in her beauty and accomplishment.
Didi is a bit of an enigma, part of the Indo-American glitterati, using the name Padma Mehta (the family name Bhattacherjee too difficult to pronounce) and relentlessly evasive with her sisters, especially Tara. The middle sister, Parvati, is married to a Bengali Brahmin. They live in a spectacular fifteenth floor high-rise overlooking the Arabian Sea; far below, the poor cobble together makeshift shelters along the water’s edge, a reminder of the dire poverty of Calcutta.
Residing in San Francisco, Tara is determinedly parenting her son, Rabi, currently enrolled in an art-based school. She is having a live-in affair with a red-bearded Buddhist ex-biker who rewired her condo. Periodically, the sisters speak on the phone, their main connection given the distance between them. They have developed a pattern, a certain superficiality dictated by expensive telephone rates: “The whole point of these phantom family reunions is to stop time when we were the Bhattacherjee sisters of Ballygunge Park Road, three pretty virgins in pastel saris chatting about their days in Calcutta.” Tara’s son considers these mindless dialogues absurd, the idle chatter a façade and their excuse to cling to a past that no longer exists.
When a young man approaches Tara calling her the familiar “auntie”, he bears identification papers from his father. “Christopher” requests a meeting with Didi, whom he swears is his birth mother. Unconvinced, Tara attempts to discuss the matter with Didi, who refuses to talk about such a ridiculous assertion. As Christopher becomes more adamant, Tara resorts to other measures, including phone calls, correspondence with the boy’s father and a clandestine visit to the police department.
For the first time in years, Tara is shaken out of her complacency; her life has a fault line that will ultimately affect her son, ex-husband and eldest sister in a brilliant and convoluted plot characteristic of this author. No assumption or relationship is left untouched as Tara’s “civilized” emotional paralysis is shattered and her family stalked by menace. The shallow intercontinental relationships of the three sisters are exposed to harsh reality. For Tara, this upheaval is life-changing, closing the chapter on innocence and opening the door to an unexpected future. With utter simplicity and cunning, Mukherjee has prepared a fictional feast, rich in cultural detail and the endless complications of love and belonging.