The Vine of Desire

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Doubleday (2002), $23.95

In this follow-up to her novel Sister of My Heart, Bay Area author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni revisits the rebellious Anju and her beautiful but "luckless" cousin, Sudha. Raised as sisters in an upper-caste family in Calcutta, the two women share a bond stronger than their bonds with others -- even their husbands. In an essay for the online magazine boldtype>, Divakaruni wrote about the absence of female camaraderie in classical Indian texts: "It was as though the tellers of these tales (who were, coincidentally, male) felt that women's relationships with each other were only of significance until they found a man to claim their attention and devotion." Divakaruni's worthy effort to add that camaraderie makes it particularly disappointing that she's guilty here of the same literary faux pas as the classicists.

Divorced from her spineless husband, Sudha brings her daughter to America to console her beloved Anju, who is increasingly estranged from her husband, Sunil. But living in the same household becomes a recipe for disaster when all three must acknowledge Sunil's secret infatuation with Sudha. The women's friendship is also tested by the cultural divide that "the accident of America" has thrust between them. As in her previous work, Divakaruni excels at depicting the nuances of the immigrant experience, particularly in Sunil's struggle to remain honorable in a society that prizes the selfish pursuit of desire and in Sudha's conflict between familial duty and her new home's idealization of individuality.


Saturday, Feb. 2, at 7:30 p.m.

Admission is free

Cody's Books on Telegraph, 2454 Telegraph (at Haste), Berkeley, 510-845-7852

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An award-winning poet, Divakaruni writes prose that is lush (if sometimes too flowery), but her dialogue fails to capture the emotional register of each character. What saves Desire from mere melodrama is the strength of her fully fleshed characters. Her flawed narrators can't be heroes, no matter how much we want them to be; they are, however, compelling, unpredictable, and frustrating. Fans of Divakaruni's Sisterwill be happy to rediscover the two women as adults, but they may find that they don't like them nearly as much.

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