In her second novel, Shilpi Somaya Gowda again deploys rich plotting and finely embroidered storytelling to reveal fascinating and sometimes disturbing elements of Indian culture. And as she did in her bestselling debut, “Secret Daughter,” Gowda keeps her readers tethered to compelling, universal human themes — heartbreak and avarice among them.
“The Golden Son” wrestles with dilemmas faced by many immigrants who come here to fulfill their dreams. The protagonist, Anil, is a conflicted young Indian — the titular “golden son” — attempting to adjust to America. And the perils of being a woman in India are also explored in the novel, which interweaves the tale of Anil’s childhood friend Leena, who lives a traditional rural life back home. (The author was born in Canada to Indian immigrant parents.)
As the eldest son of a large landowner in a small village, Anil, like his father and grandfather before him, is expected one day to become head of the family, running the farm and ruling on village disputes. But when he begins to show academic promise, his father gives him room to grow beyond the constricting boundaries of the village and encourages him to attend college and medical school.
Against steep odds, Anil wins a residency offer in Dallas at one of the busiest hospitals in America. His departure sets up one of the first internal conflicts in Anil, who shares a deep affection with Leena. But for the sake of his career (and the greater plot), he must leave this simple village girl behind.
As can be expected, Anil’s move to Texas creates culture shock. Everything is big and shiny and new to him. Despite his mother’s admonitions about the corrupting influence of life in the States, he discovers alcohol, fast food and American women. He begins dating Amber, a sweet girl-next-door type (literally: she is his neighbor). “The Golden Son” is usually a subtly drawn book, brimming with ambiguities, but this relationship gives the author an opportunity to inject some unsubtle social critiques into the story, when some locals take offense at a mixed relationship.
The death of Anil’s father calls Anil back to India, where he takes on the patriarch’s legacy as local arbiter. These mediation sessions serve as entertaining parables in themselves, as Anil must ponder disputes such as one involving a shared mango tree. The tree had been growing for decades with no problems on the property line shared by a cousin and an old family friend. But when it matured and began bearing an abundance of fruit, both parties laid claim to the tree’s gifts.
The tree might be seen as a metaphor for Anil’s dilemma as a man whose heart is in two places. How can he pluck the fruits of life from both countries? He wants to stay in America, where a modern, successful future is guaranteed, but there are good reasons to be rooted in India, as well. It allows him the pleasure of being home, the relief of being “another unremarkable person in this country of millions; no one looking at him, no one noticing he was different.”
Then, of course, there’s Leena. Her story runs parallel to his, but it’s infused with sadness. Leena must marry with no consideration of love. Her husband and in-laws turn out to be abusive. Here “The Golden Son” tracks a narrative found in other novels about South Asia, where women are devalued and have few options, even if staying with a husband could prove fatal. For a woman, “abandoning a marriage was shameful, regardless of the circumstances,” Gowda writes. “The reasons for her leaving did not matter. She would be blamed for it, and marked by it, for the rest of her life.”
Gowda paints the complex relationship between Anil and Leena with a foreshadowing and a patience not seen with the characters in “Secret Daughter,” which has a more frenetic feel. But both books are particularly adept at bringing to life the stark issues surrounding patriarchal societies.
The theme of the conflicted immigrant is nothing new, of course. A line like “He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none” sounds cliched. But “The Golden Son” triumphs because of its many pleasures and complications: romantic intrigues, family vendettas, unexpected tragedies and criminal secrets harbored by characters in both India and America. This satisfying immersion in two complicated cultures offers no easy resolutions. Gowda displays once again that, although she’s writing what she knows, her stories are hardly predictable.
Michele Langevine Leiby, a freelance writer in Washington, is a former Washington Post/Bloomberg correspondent in Pakistan.
By Shilpi Somaya Gowda
William Morrow. 394 pp. $26.99