Find it at an indie bookstore!
- Why I read it: Author presence on Twitter, cover, multicultural
- Disclosure: Received an ARC from the author.
When her father loses his job and leaves India to look for work in America, Asha Gupta, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba’s brother and his family, as well as their grandmother, in Calcutta. Uncle is welcoming, but in a country steeped in tradition, the three women must abide by his decisions. Asha knows this is temporary—just until Baba sends for them. But with scant savings and time passing, the tension builds: Ma, prone to spells of sadness, finds it hard to submit to her mother- and sister-in-law; Reet’s beauty attracts unwanted marriage proposals; and Asha's promise to take care of Ma and Reet leads to impulsive behavior. What follows is a firestorm of rebuke—and secrets revealed! Asha’s only solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and where she begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door. Asha can hardly believe that she, and not Reet, is the object of Jay’s attention. Then news arrives about Baba . . . and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever.I really hate it when people tell me a book is going to break my heart. Not that I'm not guilty of saying it, but it seems like so much weight to put on a little ARC (or paperback, or even hardcover) of a book. It stops me from making real connections to the characters, because all readers may be self-flagellants, but nobody really wants to punish themselves. (If you do, I've got a job rec for you in the kitchens of Hogwarts. A good house elf is so hard to find.) So as many good things as I'd heard about this book, even after Mitali Perkins was kind enough to send me a copy after I'd said I wanted to read it, I was still just the tiniest bit apprehensive to turn the first page.
I shouldn't have been. While the beginning was not at all what I expected, Asha's powerful voice grabbed me right away, and Mitali Perkins made a country and culture that seems to have exploded in popularity post-Slumdog Millionaire an exciting and fresh backdrop for the novel. I adore reading about India. I usually end up sitting on the kitchen counter with my very battered copies of Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, or The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; trying to read and stir my favorite lentil curry recipe at the same time. It always feels voyeuristic, though, almost exploitative; because I know that that's not anywhere near my life and, unless I win the lottery and can hop on a plane tomorrow, probably never will be. Secret Keeper, however, avoids the Mumbai slums and "American-Born-Confused-Desi" identity crises, focusing instead on making the vibrant and tumultuous world of Calcutta in the '70s relevant to a primarily American audience today.
And, to my surprise, the ending really was heartbreaking. As I've mentioned before, I can usually read YA and even "literary" foreshadowing...well, like a book. There are few surprises, and too few books that I can really say have grabbed me, roughed me up a bit, and made my tear ducts run. This book is one of them. I won't spoil it, but the ending is very surprising, and not at all the run-of-the-mill heartbreaker you might be expecting. This is one of those books that I want to recommend to absolutely everybody I meet, and of course, to the rest of the book blogosphere!
The reason it dazzles is not only the setting, but the characters. There wasn't a single one that I didn't identify with on some level, and none more so than Asha and Jay. Their romance-but-not-quite-a-romance was one of my favorite parts of the book - What can I say? Sometimes I'm a sucker too, believe it or not - and Asha's fierce love of her family even when she's frustrated with them is a feeling I'm sure every teen can identify with, even though their circumstances will probably be far from Asha's. The monster-in-laws idea is never overdone, as I had very much feared it would be, and every character has believable motives for doing what they do. It's beautiful, sometimes messy, and very real, just like life. In short, if you'd like to write YA fiction, take a leaf out of Mitali Perkins's book! (Or perhaps it would be better to just take the whole thing?)
In short, I loved it. So, to all of you bloggers and authors out there who recommended this book, I'm sorry I still had that tiniest seed of doubt in my mind. It's gone now! Five out of five stars.