ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Golden Son offers perspective, heavy-handedness

Heather Allen explores the differences at each end of the India's caste system in Golden Son.

My mother-in-law heaved a large bag of books onto her kitchen counter. She’d just purchased a set of 12 novels from a bookstore bargain bin for her next book club meeting. “Would you mind reading this and telling me if you think it’ll be good for our group?” she asked.

I often don’t have the same reading tastes, but I really hoped I’d like this one. I was relieved that she had chosen Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. This author’s last book, Secret Daughter, was a New York Times best-seller and has been optioned for a movie.

Like Secret Daughter, which is set in rural India and features a mother that must give up her daughter because of extreme poverty, Golden Son is also partially set in India. This time, rather than focusing on an unwanted girl, Gowda centres her new story on the eldest son of a well-off family. Destined to greatness, Anil leaves his village in India to study medicine at a prestigious hospital in the United States.

Golden Son highlights Anil’s personal struggles as a medical student, but also the difficulties of immigrating to a new country. He is caught between two worlds. Rather than having two homes, he is made to feel out of place in both.

A parallel story in Golden Son features Leena, Anil’s childhood friend and first love. A poor, lower class girl, Leena can never leave her village or get an education. She is soon married off to an abusive husband.

Gowda is terrific at switching between the two worlds, and capitalizes on every chance to pull the reader’s heartstrings. I sped through this book in just a few sittings.

It may have helped that I was on holidays, because, while I was compelled to read on, I was also irritated by this story. Gowda is less than subtle about where she wants to push her story, and can be pretty heavy-handed with her themes and metaphors.

She covers most of the clichés: an arrogant doctor loses a patient just at the plot moment when he needs to be cut down a notch. Thugs arrive to beat up immigrants just as they begin to feel comfortable. A down-and-out victim suddenly becomes a talented craftsperson when she needs to get back on her feet.

Over the holidays I also read cartoonist Joe Sacco’s Journalism, which is a collection of stories he drew while working as a war correspondent in various parts of the world. One of the longer works in the book depicts the lives of the Dalit in rural India – the lowest of the low caste. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare two different genres, but Gowda’s writing didn’t come close to the long lasting power of just a few of Sacco’s panels.

Even though I have some quibbles with Golden Son, I thankfully could recommend it to my mother-in-law as a good book club choice. It’s a crowd pleaser, and sure to generate lots of discussion.

Heather Allen is an avid book reader and reviewer for the Penticton Western News