Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Review: No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal

I am almost immediately attracted to books about the Indian American immigrant experience. I can't explain it; I just accept it. So when I first heard about Rakesh Satyal's novel No One Can Pronounce My Name, I knew I wanted to read it. And it very much is a novel about the Indian American immigrant experience but somehow it just didn't capture me; I set it down twice and only finished it on the third try with a concerted effort despite the fact that it should have been perfect for me.

Ranjana has spent years being the wife and mother she was expected to be but now that her only child, Prakash, is off to college, her life is sort of drifting. Her marriage has become background noise and she thinks her husband might be having an affair. To fill her free time she starts writing paranormal romances, attending a writer's group (even if she doesn't feel brave enough to participate to start with) and takes a job as a receptionist in a doctor's office. She is a reserved woman whose loneliness and need for direction is palpable. Harit is a middle aged man who works in a department store and lives with his mother. After work, he dresses up in his late sister's saris, pretending to be her for his nearly blind mother's benefit. She hasn't accepted his sister's death and he thinks to ease her by his deception. Like Ranjana, he too is crushingly lonely. It will take meeting each other and the outside influence of their respective co-workers for Ranjana and Harit to blossom into the people they want to be.

Satyal is a strong writer but the narrative here is slow and meandering. More and more secondary characters come into the story drawing it out even further. This highlights both Ranjana and Harit's distance from their community, both just hovering on the edges of the Indian American community in Cleveland, not fully integrated or accepted, but it also gives the story a lack of focus. This is very much a character study centered around issues of identity and belonging, friendship and the desire to be loved for who one is. There are some funny moments and some poignant moments as well but over all the story went off track a little too often, sprawling out in side plots that did nothing to drive the central story forward and the ending was an unrealistically happy and facile ending for the tone up to that point. The pacing was uneven as well, with the first half somberly dragging out as it established Ranjana and Harit's (and to a lesser extent Ranjana's son Prashant's) characters and the second half turning into a more comedic road trip kind of tale. The two halves were definitely an odd juxtaposition. Not a bad book, but not one that called to be picked back up once it was set down either.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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