In Anjali Banerjee’s Invisible Lives, Lakshmi Sen is living the American life while still trying to remain true to her roots and traditional Indian culture. After receiving her business degree from the University of Washington and working in New York City’s financial industry for three years, she returns home to Seattle to help support her mother’s failing sari shop. It must be said that Lakshmi is no ordinary woman. In addition to her incredible physical beauty, she has a gift referred to as the “knowing.” This “knowing” enables Lakshmi to see images in other peoples’ minds, giving her a glimpse into what their lives might be like. Lakshmi uses these images to help her understand exactly what type of sari is suitable for each customer. Lakshmi’s sensitivity is also evidenced by her attempts to hide her beauty behind baggy pants, glasses, and pulled back hair, so as not to intimidate the young brides who frequent the shop for their wedding saris. Every bride, after all, wants to be made to feel the most special and most beautiful as they plan such a momentous event.
Despite her gift and beauty, Lakshmi leads a somewhat humdrum life working in her mother’s sari shop and aiding those around her. Her life lacks excitement - that is, until the famous Bollywood star Asha Rao is escorted to the sari shop by her driver, the handsome Nick Dunbar. Asha has heard of Lakshmi’s gift and come to see for herself as she is planning her own wedding. Much to Lakshmi’s dismay, the “knowing” fizzes and disappears upon Asha and Nick’s arrival. As she stumbles through her recommendations for Asha, Lakshmi becomes more and more anxious about recovering her gift. Over time, she begins to notice a pattern; whenever Nick Dunbar is near, the “knowing” bubbles away; when he leaves it comes back.
An attraction quickly grows between Lakshmi and Nick, and they begin to spend some time together. Nick, somewhat unexpectedly, confesses his love for Lakshmi and she find herself torn as her mother has already arranged for her to marry the son of her deceased father’s best friend. What she once viewed as rich in tradition and an excellent match from a practical standpoint, she now sees as constraining and unfulfilling. Ravi is a nice enough man, but comments here and there indicate what her life will be like with him, and she’s not sure she likes what she sees. Does she choose to go ahead with her arranged marriage to Ravi to please her mother and grandmother, or does she recognize her unrequited love for Nick and follow her heart?
Invisible Lives is an entertaining and heartwarming story; however, the narrative is simplistic and rather flat at times. Although Lakshmi is a likeable character, she is not a multidimensional one. The chemistry that supposedly exists between Nick and Lakshmi also seems somewhat chaste, not entirely realistic for a woman in her late 20s and a man in his early 30s. The speed with which Nick declares his love for Lakshmi is a bit puzzling as their limited interactions seem stiff and without spark. While “love at first sight” is a romantic notion, in this case the storyline seems underdeveloped and not entirely believable.
However, Banerjee does excellently portray life as a young, unmarried Indian woman living in America while trying to adhere to tradition. Banerjee’s description of the beautiful sari silks, chiffons, and colors creates an admirable aesthetic which contributes greatly to the novel. Banerjee also uses her other characters to hint that so called “perfect matches” and auspicious dates do not always equal marital bliss. What will Lakshmi decide? She could probably learn to love Ravi over time, but would she ever truly be happy? A light-hearted book worthy of notice, Invisible Lives explores Indian traditions while illustrating a young woman’s difficult decision as she contemplates whether to break with tradition and follow her heart, or to accept a fate that was determined for her long ago by relatives of older generations.