August Fiction

August 08, 2004|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

The Village Bride of Beverly Hills

By Kavita Daswani (Put-nam, 288 pages, $23.95)

The tension between duty and freedom has long been a favorite subject for American novelists of Indian origin, from Bharati Mukherjee to Jhumpa Lahiri. Usually weighty, the theme gets a more light-handed treatment here. Daswani, author of a well-received 2003 novel, For Matrimonial Purposes, was born in Hong Kong to parents from Bombay and now lives in Los Angeles, as does Priya, the heroine of her new book.

The youngest daughter in a traditional New Delhi family, 24-year old Priya agrees to marry Sanjay, the dutiful son of equally traditional Hindu parents, and leaves India for the groom's home in Los Angeles. Priya understands that her role is to serve as "housekeeper, cook, and general errand-runner" in Sanjay's household, which includes his parents as well as his spoiled younger sister. But when Priya's mother-in-law criticizes her for not getting pregnant right away and insists that she get a job to help support the family, Priya finds a position as a receptionist for a glossy entertainment magazine called the Hollywood Insider.

It isn't long before intelligent and graceful Priya gets promoted to entertainment reporter.

Forced to hide her unsuitably glamorous new situation from Sanjay and his family, she tries unsuccessfully to keep her marriage from unraveling under the pressure. What's nice about Daswani's storytelling is her ability to maintain a light tone without sacrificing genuine sympathy for every one of her incompatible characters.

Maybe Baby

By Tenaya Darlington (Back Bay Books, 256 pages, $13.95)

In this first-rate comedy of eccentric manners, Rusty and Judy Glide of Fort Cloud, Wis., are your typical middle-age suburban couple -- he works in a car dealership; she's a former home-economics teacher -- whose three grown children have bafflingly abandoned them. One son, Henry, is an undernourished rock star, while cross-dressing Carson joined the Hare Krishnas. Neither keeps in touch.

Meanwhile, youngest child Gretchen has called from Chicago to announce her pregnancy. Even this good news becomes cause for dismay when Gretchen mentions that she and the baby's father, a humorless and extremely hairy modern dancer named Ray, are planning to raise a "gender-neutral" child.

This means, apparently, that the baby will be dressed exclusively in black and its gender never revealed or discussed. Moreover, Gretchen and Ray have joined a group of like-minded individuals who name their children after celestial galaxies and allow them to play only with amorphous gray blobs of Nerf. Needless to say, this is all a bit much for Rusty and Judy, whose yearning to be normal seems doomed to be thwarted by each of their children. In the end, though, the baby's birth provides the occasion for a distinctly abnormal but touching family reunion. Only the rare author can combine goofiness with true poignancy. Darlington does it with ease.

Shenandoah Summer

By John Jaffe (Warner Books, 274 pages, $24)

Jaffe, author of a second-chance-at-romance novel called Thief of Words (2003), has written another book with a similar theme, this time set evocatively in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The new novel concerns Alyssa Brown, a drama teacher from D.C. who's spending the summer on her weekend farm, and Tug Palifax, a New York sculptor participating at a nearby artists' colony. With her husband and daughter conveniently away, Alyssa falls hard for Tug, who pretends to be hanging around her farm so he can improve his drawing skills. A sweet and perfectly conventional summer romance, Jaffe's novel offers lovely descriptions of the region along with a full dose of old-fashioned sentimentality.

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne

By Esi Edugyan (Ami-stad / HarperCollins, 336 pages, $24.95)

This haunting tale set in Alberta in the late 1960s chronicles the later life of its title character, a West Afri-can immigrant who quits his government job in Calgary when he inherits a house in a small prairie town that was originally settled by former black slaves. Now integrated, the town is troubled by political infighting and a series of arsons. Even so, Samuel sees it as a second chance, a haven where he can set up his own long-wished-for electronics business.

But many forces conspire against Samuel's happiness, including the contrary wishes of his dour wife and brilliant daughters, a pair of 12-year-old twins so sinister that not even Stephen King could imagine them. The girls are either stonily silent or bizarrely vociferous in an invented language. They are by turns furtive and malingering, and they may be responsible for misbehavior ranging from practical jokes to an attempted drowning and those mysterious town fires. Written with precocious confidence when Edugyan was only 25, the book is simultaneously sweeping and intimate, brutal and tender, high-spirited and desolate.

Going East

By Matthew d'Ancona (Nan A. Talese / Double-day, 384 pages, $25)

Eating Crow

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