All the Lives We Never Lived, by Anuradha Roy***

I had not read Roy’s work before, but when I saw this galley—with an arresting cover and the promise of a Man Booker nominated author—I jumped on it.  Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. It’s for sale now.

I’m months late with my review, and the cause of my tardiness is my ambivalence about this book and my confusion as to why it fizzled for me. It starts out well, and at the outset I love Gayatri, the nonconformist mother of Myshkin, our other main character. Every stereotype ever built about Indian women is utterly crushed as she screams with joy while riding downhill on her bicycle. Her sari is torn, her hair is a mess…and her husband adores her.

The story is set just prior to World War II as well as the Indian quest for independence. But as India struggles to break free of the British Empire, Gay struggles to break free of her marriage.

Myshkin is extremely close to his mother, and when we meet him he is elderly, retired from working as the town’s landscape director and gardener, and living alone in greatly reduced circumstances compared to the ones in which he grew up. His whole life has been nothing but sorrow and loss since his mother abandoned him. We see in her letters to friends and in his own inner monologue that she had intended to take him with her, but the timing was right down to the wire. She told him not to be late coming home from school because something important was happening; but then his teacher was unhappy with the class and kept them all after school, and faced with the choice to fish or cut bait, Gay left without her little boy.

Usually when I don’t like a book, I also know exactly why I don’t like it. This time I had to mull it over. On the one hand, I heartily dislike the mother here; I’m a diehard feminist, but child abandonment is child abandonment. However, a flawed or even villainous protagonist shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Think of Hannibal Lector! Think of The Talented Mr. Ripley! And of course we also know that for Gay to leave her marriage was a dicey proposition during this time period when an Indian woman was legally little more than chattel. Nevertheless, I resent this character, who is portrayed as flawed and yet heroic. Why doesn’t she keep Myshkin home from school, have him feign illness or hide somewhere, rather than set up this failure? Her love for him is supposedly tremendous, and yet she chooses to leave without him; when she becomes a famous painter and openings exist to find and reclaim her son, she has endless excuses.

In addition to my frustration with the character, I also see pacing problems. Rather than experiencing the powerful range of feelings that the book’s teaser promises, after I was twenty-five percent of the way in, I was mostly just weary, depressed, and watching the page numbers crawl by.

Is it over yet?

Another reviewer suggested that although there is a long, slow part during the book’s first half, once we get to a certain point—which he identified, but I have forgotten where it was—the whole thing would gel and make it worthwhile. And so I soldiered on, reached his benchmark and then past it for a few pages more, just in case. But no.

Having forced myself along this far, I resolved to skip to the last 25% so that I would be able to write a fair review. Sometimes the way a book ends can completely change how I feel about it. But I found that so much change had occurred in the portion I had skipped that I couldn’t regain the thread, so with a heavy sigh I flipped back to where I’d been and saw it through. But the ending is worse than the middle, with Gay’s entire narrative attached to it in the form of detailed letters to a third party, the friend that helped her sneak out of India. 

I once met someone that had added onto his home in a do-it-yourself way that had nothing to do with building codes, and the floors sloped precariously, the style of the addition resembling a hillbilly patchwork job more than a suburban home. And that’s what the end of this book is like. It’s as if a deadline was nearing and the writer tacked something on quickly to get it done in time.

How did something that started so well turn into such a mess? It’s perplexing. All I know is that when I was done with it, I felt as though spring had arrived, and there was an added bounce to my step, not because the book made me feel that way, but because the book was over, and I would never have to read it again.

All this said, the initial character sketch of Gayatri is wonderful. I could see using a cutting from it in a creative writing class. But get it free or cheap unless your pockets are deep; I cannot recommend the book as a whole.

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