Desirable Daughters

by Bharati Mukherjee

Published by HarperFlamingo Canada

310 pages, 2002

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Suffocating Siblings

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Desirable Daughters is the sort of novel that takes a long time to get off the ground and, even when it does, it never achieves the kind of liftoff it needs to really fly. Steeped in Indian culture old and new, it keeps bogging down in tight little circles of detail that create an atmosphere of cramped inwardness, even suffocation.

Mind you, this may have been the effect Mukherjee was after. Traditional Indian society is her beat, after all, and she has explored it thoroughly and quite effectively in four previous novels and many short stories. How well she knows the repression that keeps the women of her culture nailed down in subservience to male desires.

In this novel, three strikingly-beautiful sisters from a privileged Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta feel the tug between tradition and freedom as they try to meet expectations that are often wildly contradictory. The youngest, Tara Chatterjee, seems to have flown farthest from the nest. Not only is she divorced from Bishwapriya (a Silicon Valley multimillionaire hand-picked for her by her father), she's raising a "sensitive" teenaged son on her own. Even worse, she works as a lowly teacher, a choice which would be unthinkable in the culture of her birth.

Tara narrates the story from her adopted San Francisco home, where she lives with Andy Karolyi, a strange sort of Hungarian Zen carpenter who earthquake-proofs houses. All this seems to imply a sort of free and easy hippie lifestyle, but nothing could be farther from the truth. All these rebellion-gestures are merely trappings, or reactions against the gagging restrictions of Tara's girlhood.

She opens her story in a curious way, with a legend about her namesake Tara Lata, also known as the Tree Bride -- a remarkable figure who became prominent in the fight for Indian freedom. This goes on for 20 pages and seems to push the story deeply in the direction of the past. Then, in a kind of dislocating lurch, Tara heads into her own story.

She recounts the utter lack of romanticism in her marriage, in which her father told her, "There is a boy and we have found him suitable. Here is his picture. The marriage will be in three weeks." Tara, not knowing any other way, submitted: "I married a man I had never met, whose picture and biography and bloodlines I approved of, because my father told me it was time to get married and this was the best husband on the market."

Her relationship with her two elder sisters is complicated, the flow of affection blocked by a certain formality and adherence to preset roles. Middle sister Parvati married a rich man and stayed in India, but by some miracle was able to choose her mate: "Parvati, the pliable middle daughter had done the unthinkable: she'd made a love match. ... He was certainly not what brains-and-beauty Parvati Bhattacharjee could have commanded on the Calcutta marriage market."

But this is Parvati's only stab at rebellion. For the most part she toes the line in a way which has diminished her soul. She writes to Tara: "I hope you aren't doing bad things to yourself like taking Prozac and having cosmetic surgery. Please, please don't become that Americanized."

Didi, the eldest and most glamorous, married a Mehta (an illustrious family which includes the conductor Zubin) and moved to New Jersey to pursue a career in television. But again, all is not as it seems. Her lifestyle is a thin veneer laid over the dense, pressed-down bedrock of tradition.

Every novel needs a crisis, and in this case it comes in the form of a young man who calls himself Chris Dey. He presents himself to Tara as Didi's illegitimate son, conceived through an affair with a prominent businessman named Ronald Dey. This exposes an ugly underlayer of culture to Tara, "not the India of doting grandparents, not the India of comfort and privilege, but the backyard of family, the compost heap."

The sludge that is dredged up from the turbulence of this crisis isn't new at all: "Chronic depression runs in our family," Tara reveals, "passed on from mothers to daughters." Sunday afternoon migraines, to be borne in martyrish silence, are a tradition regular as clockwork.

If that is the cost of repression, what price freedom? No one is really free in this novel -- not Tara, who is more of a status-conscious snob than she wants to admit; not the rather ludicrous Andy Karolyi, a poorly-drawn cartoon figure; and certainly not Didi, who pretends very hard that the "misalliance" that produced her son didn't happen. It becomes obvious as the story progresses that Chris Dey isn't really who he says he is, and in fact he feels like a device, something dropped into the story to keep things moving forward.

One rather effective metaphor Mukherjee uses is the cracking and splitting effect of earthquakes, creating fissures in what looks like a solid structure: "The fault line ran directly through my family, separating sister from sister, the forward-looking from the traditional and the adaptable from the brittle." In another scene, the cracks in Didi's careful façade start to show: "Didi was sitting just inches away, a firm identity resisting all change, at least from a distance, on a brief inspection. But under scrutiny, fractured, like cracks under old glaze. Up close, I didn't recognize her."

At the end, the novel comes full circle back to India and the legend of Tara Lata the Tree Bride, but this device doesn't quite work either. The denouement somehow goes slack and does not yield a satisfying end to the story.

In fact, the whole novel feels a little too contrived to reach its full potential as a family saga. Though it held my interest for the secrets of culture it revealed, Desirable Daughters did not turn out to be a particularly desirable read. | July 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.