Falling for a family saga
Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s first novel, Secret Daughter, employed a split narrative to tell the stories of two characters separated by geography and class. In this, her more complex and refined second novel, the author uses a similar structure to recount the story of Anil, aspiring doctor and eldest son of a respected farming family in Gujarat, India, and his close childhood friend, Leena, a creative, strong-willed girl whose background promises much less in terms of future fortune and opportunity.
The Golden Son often reads like a fable wherein the hero’s struggles lead him to revelations that were under his nose all along. When Anil leaves his family to begin a prestigious internship in a hospital in Texas, it is as a prodigal son whose return is anticipated and begrudged. While in the U.S., the camaraderie that develops between Anil and his two Indian-born roommates allow Gowda to explore some well-worn themes about the conflict between cultural tradition and individual choice and the particular isolation experienced by the new immigrant.
Meanwhile, Leena’s parents have found a man willing to marry their daughter, and, despite having to borrow money for an acceptable dowry, are confident they have made the right choice. With this storyline, Gowda examines some of the more disturbing and antiquated aspects of gender relations in India, to powerful effect.
When Anil’s father dies suddenly, his mother insists he take on the role as arbiter, and the cases he is asked to “judge” give the novel some of its most compelling moments.
There is something perhaps overly romantic and incredible about Anil and Leena’s shared story, but I will confess to falling for it nonetheless — and Gowda has the writerly chops when it comes to pace and plot that keep a reader engaged regardless of misgivings. More importantly, the novel’s denouement manages to subvert expectations, while still fulfilling the fable’s responsibility to convey a useful, resonant truth.
by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, HarperAvenue, 408 pages, $32.99.
The Golden Son