Leah Franqui’s Mother Land isn’t quite as interesting as her first novel (America for Beginners), but in its messy, wonderfully insular sense of family, culture and the notion of rebelling against both, it’s quite the unique gem.
Rachel Meyer, recently moved to Mumbai with her new husband Dhruv, is experiencing severe culture shock. She doesn’t understand the customs and she’s clumsy with the language, but she’s stumbling along as best she can while trying to network with other expats.
Then her mother-in-law, Swati Aggarwal, appears upon her doorstep, announcing that she’s left her husband after forty-one years of marriage. Critical, traditional Swati dislikes Rachel’s clumsiness and the outright rejection of the customs by which Swati has lived her life. Soon Swati goes about trying to run the household her way – to help Rachel avoid the pains and burdens she endured, though Rachel doesn’t see it that way – leading to major upsets between the two of them.
Just as the tension reaches its peak, Dhruv announces he’s going to be going off on a business trip, leaving Swati and Rachel alone together for a month. This will force the two disparate women to try to get along – or suffer in the process. Will they be able to understand each other? Will Swati learn to accept the less traditional nature of her daughter-in-law? And will Rachel’s rootless sense of frustration – with her marriage, with India, with her careerless life – find grounding in learning from Swati’s more traditional nature?
The little details of life in Mumbai are captured beautifully by Franqui, who manages to give us a simple family drama and light it up neon-bright with the megawatt chemistry between our two main characters.
While Swati must learn the value of living in her own light – and living on her own terms – Rachel must realize that the paradise she’s built for herself is a false one, and adjust accordingly. The two women hit the speedbumps of their individual mission side by side, and slowly but surely they go from mutual wariness to admiration and friendship.
The book has a beautifully feminist message about embracing imperfections, failures, happiness and fluid roles for oneself outside of the restrictive cages of tradition.
Another wonderful thing about Mother Land – it’s got a lively amount of food porn, beautifully described. In its rejection of traditions but pursuit of a world where cultures are understood across the borders of existence, it’s food that leads the way for the characters and helps define Rachel’s life.
Still, the book isn’t quite as interesting an experience as the sprawling America for Beginners. Perhaps it needed more viewpoints, or perhaps its domestic points of view are rendered without the right level of complexity to make it truly pop to full life.
But these are small dents. Mother Land is a rewarding reading experience about finding friendship where you’d least expect it.
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