Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
There tends to be a thread through the lives of many immigrants. There are those left behind, struggling with the issues that first-generations fled. That first generation is torn between absorbing the life of the new country while preserving the most valued traditions. Then there’s the second-generation, native-born children who simply want to be part of the adopted culture.
This novel by a Bengali-born author captures this in the lives of three generations of women. There is Sabitri, the daughter of a Bengal baker, who dreams of a university education and is placed in the care of a wealthy Calcutta family. Then there is daughter Bela, who flees to the United States with her lover, a political refugee. The first child born in the US, granddaughter Tara, struggles to shake off her Indian roots but finds herself drawn back to the culture she’s trying to leave behind.
Divakaruni has a lovely prose style and manages to balance the lives of all three women and introduce side characters that help give depth to the novel.
Sabitri loses the protection of the wealthy family when an important class barrier is crossed. She marries and uses the skills learned from her father to build a prosperous bakery. She’s a wonderfully strong character and the scenes in which she’s trying to find perfect flavors for new bakery confections are interesting and fun. Her story, and a letter she writes to infant Tara, when she realizes she can’t get to the US for her birth, is a key factor in Tara’s development.
Bela finds life in the US a trial and eventually divorces and establishes a life for herself in Texas. Tara finds herself resisting an education that both other women, particularly Saitri, sacrificed much to try to obtain for themselves and the next generation.
Some reviews have said that the jumps among the lives of the three women are labored, but there’s something of a mystery the author needed to develop and the choices seemed well-formed to me. Prose alone make Divakaruni a great read. The characters seem very alive and the subject matter would have made a narrative with a straight chronology a bore.