The Vine of Desire, by Chita Banerjee Divakaruni.
The Vine of Desire, by Chita Banerjee Divakaruni. Anchor (2003), Paperback, 384 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A moving, poetic novel about two young women from India, “sisters of the heart,” who find that life in America brings new conflicts and disappointments.
The Vine of Desire is a sequel to Divakaruni’s fine Sisters of the Heart which follows two women, raised as sisters, who separate at their marriages. This book starts where the first book leaves off with Sudha, divorced from her husband in India, arriving in San Francisco with her infant daughter. Meeting her are Anju, shattered by a recent miscarriage, and her husband. Both women intend to help the other through hard times, but instead the tensions in the tiny apartment where they live together become unbearable. All of the characters needs to create new goals as they see their expectations of life in America dissolve.
Divakaruni is a poet as well as a novelist. Her poetic ability is revealed with her perfect choice of words and images. Yet descriptions and metaphors never overwhelm the stories she is telling. Her plots and her characters are unusual, mainly because they tend to be ignored in US fiction, but they become real and their feelings easy to understand. Their problems are less about the cultural disorientation of immigration and more about the psychological and interpersonal stresses that come with the alleged “freedom” of life in their new land.
Describing the tensions of a family in transition, Divakaruni manages to avoid blaming anyone for their actions. The male characters in Divakaruni’s novel are well-drawn and believable. They are good, kind men, even though they have little ability to understand the women at the heart of the story. In their different ways, Sudha and Anju both want more than the restricted lives they had raised to lead in India. At time their frustration contains hints of feminism. What they do want and what is possible are initially more nebulous to them, however. Their search for alternatives is central to the story. Each struggles to find a viable path and the story is about coping with loss as well as finding love.
Sudha is a single mother, and Divakaruni explores the contradictions and complications of that role. Like most mothers, single or married, Sudha is shown as moving back and forth from frustration and anger to the sheer bliss her daughter brings her. The conflicting demands of nurturing and employment explored. The author also considers the problems of raising a child in a non-traditional household where roles are weakly defined. We see Sudha floundering and resentful when Anju and her husband seem to take over the parenting of her child and the pain of all when their involvement with the toddler ends.
Although this novel tells the story of immigrants to America from India, the issues it raises are ones that many of us face. In this country, the mythical American Dream is increasingly impossible to attain, even from people born here and expecting the upward mobility their parents knew. Our middle-class existence is threatened, and we, like some of Divakaruni’s characters, find ourselves making do with imperfect situations.
I heartily recommend this novel for all readers, especially those interested in family dynamics, in migration, and in motherhood. And for those who simply love the English language used well. You don’t need to have read Sisters of the Heart to enjoy this one.