Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (21 June − 29 June)

After an aborted attempt at reading The Other, I abandoned realistic fiction and picked up another book about deities. I was not disappointed.

The Palace of Illusions tells the story of an Indian princess who was born out of a fire as a sort of throw-in with the son her father asked for. The son, Dhri, was called upon to kill his father’s greatest enemy, but it is the daughter, Panchaali, who is to be the catalyst for the event. The novel tells the story of Panchaali from her youth until the end of her life, and it tells it in a really engaging way by giving away the ending and most of the important points of the story really early in the book. Panchaali, the narrator, goes to a fortune-teller early on who tells quite a bit of the story, and at the end of each chapter she says things like, “Later, when this REALLY IMPORTANT thing happened, I understood why I shouldn’t have done this stupid thing here” that totally spoil what’s going to happen. I kept reading because I needed to know how it happened. Really cool.

Rating: 9/10