Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Desirable Daughters.
In Bharati Mukherjee's novel Desirable Daughters, dangers lurk on all sides, ready to attack families, marriages, peace of mind and the status quo. These hazards are born in family, the retaining of one's niche, the desire place for wealth, fate, human secrets and conspiracies. And paradoxically, the only protection against these pitfalls are the hazards themselves: family, social position, wealth, secrets and the gods.
A mythic family story begins the book. The story is about a pre-arranged marriage that goes wrong when the intended groom dies from a snakebite – even though worship had been made to the goddess of snake bites-- on his way to the wedding ceremony. In a show of greed, the bridegroom's father greedily demands the dowry anyway. The bride's father, a western-educated Hindu who struggles to uphold his Hindu faith, disagrees. The author tells us that in Hinduism a woman reaches nirvana through worshiping her husband as a god. And a woman without a husband is not only a social outcast but doomed to be reincarnated. In order to save his beloved daughter, Tara Lata, from this fate, her father marries her to a tree. Now married, she can wear vermillion in the parting of her hair and she will not be ostracized. Like her other two sisters, she is now married. The story seems to foreshadow issues that will be in the book: wealth, caste, arranged marriage, spiritual struggles. And some of these ideas do pop up in the book. But not all. And often, the book seems to veer from its mark with scattershot scenes and issues that don't quite gel.
The story continues in modern day San Francisco where Tara Lata, the namesake of the Tree-bride, is divorced from her billionaire husband, Bish, and raising her fifteen year old son, Rabi. She has a white American lover, Andy, who is a typical former hippie-type who always spouts pseudo-enlightened Buddhist maxims. The divorce was amicable, but the East Indian community has no language or ceremonies for divorce so the divorce is kind of an open secret, understood but not really acknowledged. Tara has two sisters. One, Parvati, who lives in India and – although her marriage was a love-match -- seems to have stayed within her cultural norms. The other sister, Padma, lives in New Jersey and is well-known in East Indian arty circles. She is a kind of Americanized Indian princess. It is Padma's past that fuels Tara's realization that she knows very little about life, its dangers and complications. When a young stranger appears claiming to be one Christopher Day, Padma's long-lost son, questions arise about family secrets, the implication of community and being an Indian in a foreign country. The search for information about Christopher follows the novel's original heart: parental love, the love of siblings and family.
Desirable Daughters shows that sometimes people are deluded about their own families and their own power over their own lives. The sisters, it turns out, are not as close as they think they are. They know their careers and love lives may have been thwarted by parental expectations. They know they hide secrets from each other. But they also know that family peace is preserved through silence, even to the point of emotional self-destruction. Of course, when secrets come out, trouble follows -- in this case, a vast conspiracy. The exploration of mendacity, social shame and the confusion involved in acculturation are great themes for a novel. And many immigrants would probably identify with them.
However, the author has ended up with writing a book with typically American feminist ideas about housewives, sexuality, and worth. Having settled for American feminist issues and avoided the aforementioned Indian feminist ones, the author ends up with a nearly familiar tale of female victim-hood and females on the verge of personal enlightenment and freedom from oppressive well-meaning husbands. So many passages seem like polemical arguments that are simply added to make a feminist American point. For instance, there is the introduction of homosexuality. The main character accepts the sexual orientation of a homosexual character fairly readily. But the sexual orientation of the "fag hag" is explored and questioned. Very American, but imbalanced. What are we to make of the list of the author's list of atrocities done on Indian women when the most wounded and damaged characters in the book are a cast-off husband and a cast-off male child? As a reader, I suspected many of these atrocities were probably against lower caste women and were simply being used by the author as a sexual issue when they were more likely caste issues. Why, for instance, does the author gloss over the issue of Poppy Dey's dark skin and the Indian desire for light-skinned desirable daughters? Perhaps because she is light and that isn't an American feminist issue? But isn't lightness of skin something that is immensely desirable in daughters? How does acculturation, hinted at in the story of the father of the first Tara Lata, connect with American imperialism? Why isn't the main character's attitude toward the white culture explored more? Desirable Daughters feels strangely unbalanced, as if the author is only seeming to explore her own cultural issues.
The last part of the novel is a kind of spiritual wind-up which attempts to tie the strands of fate, sexual secrets, sexuality and female abuse together. But again this seems polemic instead of organic and intrinsic to the character. Likewise, the spirituality of the ending is questionable. The only character who seems even vaguely spiritual in the book is Andy, the Buddhism-spouting boyfriend. The character, Tara Lata, seemed culturally and morally-aware but confused, intelligent and emotional, but not particularly spiritual.
The novel, however, is well-written and gives readers an insight into the Indian culture. But one wishes the author had delved further into what it means to be an Indian woman coming to enlightenment instead of falling into the trap of an imperialist American feminism which betrays the feminism of other cultures.