Life is Too Short for Terrible Books (On Reading “The Golden Son” by Shilpa Somaya Gowda

"The Golden Son" is a heavy-handed novel ( Scienceworld, Vancouver BC)

(Scienceworld, Vancouver BC)

I don’t like leaving books unfinished. Even when a novel isn’t going anywhere, I inch along in the hopes that at some point the novel will turn around, the plot will make sense, the characters will come alive, and the book will mean something to me after I’ve finished the read. And so, despite the effect reading this book has had on my personal wellbeing and sanity, I finished the April Seriously Planning bookclub selection, Shilpa Somaya Gowda’s book “The Golden Son” today. It took weeks to get to 20% of the novel  because it was too painful to read more than a few pages at a time, but over the past couple of days I read during every spare moment and in the evenings in order to complete the read. Today I finished the book, and I never want to see or talk about this book again. It’s been a while since I’ve disliked a book so strongly.

Gowda’s first book, “Secret Daughter” is one of my favourite novels and I loved the complex characters and rich plot when I first read the book. It’s a book I’ve recommended to many many people, and so when I discovered that Gowda’s second novel “The Golden Son” was published in 2015 I suggested it for the Seriously Planning bookclub. Whatever the plot of the novel, I was sure we would enjoy our reading session because it was a Gowda novel, and I thought that meant the novel would be good.

I was wrong. The Golden Son is flat, painful, and altogether an uninteresting read.

The book revolves around the story of Anil and Leena, childhood friends from the same village in rural India. When they grow older, we meet them both as Anil is preparing to leave India to do his medical residency in Dallas and Leena is preparing to get married into a family she barely knows and to a man she has only met once. Her parents have a loving marriage and she assumes that though she is marrying a stranger, she will find love in her marriage as well. The novel then follows the lives of both characters and traces Anil’s adjustment to life in America, life with his two roommates, and his life as a first year intern at Parkview hospital. He makes mistakes, he learns from his mistakes and bit by bit, Dallas becomes more familiar and ultimately, feels like home. In the meantime, Leena marries into a cruel, abusive family and a unloving marriage, and is unable to seek help or consult anyone about whether what she is experiencing is normal, or to contact her parents. In fact, her inlaws take more and more from her parents in the form of gold, money and other possessions as they treat Leena like a slave. The abuses and oppressions of her and her family mount until Leena must fight for her very survival and decide to make a life for herself. “The Golden Son” follows Anil and Leena’s lives until they meet again and shows us Anil taking leadership in his family as the family arbitrator, Leena taking leadership in her family and how the events of their lives shape the people they become and the lives they choose to live.

A potentially interesting plot, but the problem with this book is that the characters feel flat, and the novel is written with a heavy hand. Abusive relationships are real, but the idea of an abusive unloving arranged marriage is not an original plot line, and there is so much more that the author could have discussed instead. When reading I felt like the author was determined for the characters to go through as many painful incidents as possible – from racially motivated physical attacks, to work conflicts, to suicides to preserve the family honour, to societal ostracisation, to acts of murder and more, and this book reads less as a story and more as a litany of terrible events. It’s a predictable read, and the foreshadowing in this book is not subtle. And though we do eventually read about loving relationships between South Asian characters, for the majority of the novel the only loving equitable relationship is Anil’s relationship with Amber, a Caucasian woman who lives in his apartment complex. Amber is Anil’s first relationship and it is with her that he explores into love and romantic relationships for the first time. Even Amber is a flat, lifeless character however, and the only person I found myself attached to in this novel (though I cared about what happened to Leena) was Anil’s sister Piya who is talkative, lively, capable and  confident. Everyone else, and everything else in this novel left me unsatisfied.

Have you read this book? Please do share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

[update: My mum also read this book, and pointed out after I published this post that one of the things that was beautiful about this novel was Leena’s resourcefulness. When she needs to support herself and her mother, she weaves baskets. When that is not a viable source of income, she turns to pottery and learns a new craft. And she takes care of a family and children that need support – she is strong in herself and doesn’t need a man to support her or save her. She is her own strength. This is true, and something I admired about the novel and I’m glad to be called out to be more fair in my assessment and description of this book. (Thanks Mum)]

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