Sunday, August 29, 2010

I wanted to like Invisible Lives, by Anjali Banerjee (Goodreads link) more than I did. I did enjoy it, but in the end I found the conceit better than the execution.

In a previous post I mentioned what I think is the main flaw of the book: it's first person point of view. First person isn't a deal breaker for me; I don't have preferences in that respect, but there are intrinsic limitations to each point of view choice. First person is often a 'telling' point of view (versus showing), which is a harder emotional sell, and requires the reader to believe that the narrator is a reasonably reliable narrator. As well, on some level, its success depends on you finding the narrator, if not likeable, than at least relatable.

I don't think the problem here is cultural, at least in the respect that Banerjee does a good job of keeping her protagonist Lakshmi's situation/dilemma universal—the pressure of following family's expectation against following one's own heart. Where Banerjee fails for me, first of all, is in Lakshmi herself.

It's a romance. You should know where it's going from the blurb. But in case I need to say it, spoilers beneath the cut.

It doesn't bother me that Lakshmi is devastatingly beautiful; for one thing, it doesn't feel like Banerjee makes much of Lakshmi's beauty except as a demonstration of Lakshmi's endless kindness in hiding her beauty for the benefit of others. Banerjee doesn't really fall into the main Mary-Sue trap of having Lakshmi be irresistible to all men because of her beauty, either, so it's easily hand-waveable. But, as mentioned, there is Lakshmi's huge and boundless kindness to go along with her beauty. Part of it is encoded in the story itself; the story tips over into magical realism with Lakshmi's empathetic "knowing", an extrasensory perception that gives her glimpses into people's minds and hearts to see their topmost longings, sorrows and joys. The influx of emotion from other people drives Lakshmi to help wherever she can—largely in the selection of perfect saris for her customers—and can be seen, in one sense, as self-protective.

As well, Lakshmi's benevolent kindness is simultaneously shown as her weakness; her inability to let go of the concerns, hurts and expectations of others obscures her views of her own desires and wants…but as flaws go, it is that most Mary-Sue of traits—her flaw is that she's too selfless, too giving, too invested in others to the detriment of herself. And Banerjee falls into that trap in the way she glorifies the flaw at the same time she makes it the heart of Lakshmi's conflict. The fact that Lakshmi regularly makes a martyr of herself is regarded more as a cute foible, a'la Bella Swan's (and all the other heroines like her) clumsiness, than an actual problem and, once realized, Lakshmi is able to (more or less) release her 'bad habit' (with no more effort than deciding to do so) and find perfect and permanent happiness with her chosen love.

As well, the romance itself is the paper-thin stuff of modern rom-com, based nearly quite literally on love at first sight and an acquaintanceship that encompasses one and a half dates. Though the story set up lends itself to these kinds of relationships—the crux of the story is how the lovers find their way to their HEA, thus the love itself has to be dispensed with quickly to get to that meaty middle—I don't really enjoy those kinds of stories because I'm not sold on the relationship. They don't feel substantive enough to convince me that these relationships have what it takes to make it past the first downturn and I always end up feeling vaguely cheated that I'm supposed to care very deeply about whether these people get together when I don't feel like I've been given a good enough reason for why they should be together. (or that I should care)

There are, however, things I think Banerjee did really well. As I said, I liked that, although Lakshmi was supposed to be very beautiful, Banerjee didn't make a great deal of that beauty. It was a side note and not central to the story. I liked that Lakshmi had both a loving relationship with her mother and conflict. I think it's very easy to err on one side or the other, for a lazy writer, and I think Banerjee did a reasonably good job of showing the pluses and minuses of a close-knit family; the support and love on one side and the constriction and pressure to conformity on the other. I also liked that Lakshmi had close female friends who supported each other wholeheartedly and without catlike pettiness or judgment. By and large, the relationships were open and honest and emotional without being overwrought.

The thing I liked most, I think, was that a lot of stories like this go one of two ways: either the Americanized child realizes their fault in trying to move away from their culture and rejects their Americanization or the child defies and disdains their restrictive, oppressive native culture and embraces the freedom of their Americanization. Banerjee chose to reject both options, keeping Lakshmi's deep love and connectedness to her culture front and center—and sympathetically so—while also acknowledging the parts of her that didn't strictly belong to Indian culture anymore. I also liked that, although Ravi was not destined to be with Lakshmi, Banerjee didn't take the easy way out and make him a jerk or otherwise horrible person (even when, I think, Lakshmi was almost looking for him to be). They were well suited to each other and got along and, if Lakshmi hadn't met her American beau (why can't I remember his name?) first, things with her and Ravi might very well have blossomed entirely differently. And I like the ambiguity of that; that it could have been love, except Lakshmi's heart had already spoken its (different) wants.

I feel as though the story almost would have made a better movie than book; it didn't feel like there was quite enough of the story there to be satisfying as a novel (and, at under 200 ebook pages, it's pretty short), but with the added visuals and time compression of the cinema, I think it would be a perfect offering for a 'chick flick', with decent crossover appeal. The book, however, relates unfortunately back to its title in that respect, because it feels like too much is invisible and thin as one of Lakshmi's silk saris.

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