Tishani Doshi’s latest novel begins in Paramankeni, a far-flung coastal village in Tamil Nadu. The protagonist, Grace, has returned from America to take ownership of a house left to her by her recently deceased mother. There’s another legacy too—a sister she never knew about. This, however, is a mixed blessing as Lucia has Down’s syndrome and requires full-time care.
This new challenge adds to Grace’s existing burdens. She has fled her failed marriage in North Carolina and an unsuccessful career. For someone who has shunned the intimacy of family life—especially the necessity of having babies—the prospect of nurturing another human for the long term is unimaginable.
Doshi piles the pressure on her heroine by giving her an unsupportive environment. The other villagers are either hostile or court her for her perceived wealth. Used to the sanitized society of the West, Grace finds it hard to accept the messy disorder of her inheritance. Doshi does not shy away from the more unpleasant features of the Indian everyday, detailing the poverty and savagery of life at the edge, including an incident of mass dog poisoning. Meanwhile, the self-sacrifice required to look after Lucia brings further issues. As Grace finds out, “return is never the experience you hope for.”
A stronger character might bend to the task. Grace, however, chooses to escape reality by making periodic sojourns to Madras, leaving Lucia in the care of the housekeeper. Here she starts a relationship with Vik which is ultimately doomed because of her inability to commit. The pair circulate in a set of other intellectual, entitled drifters who Grace admires for being “unmarried, unmoored”. Although it’s clear that this so-called freedom doesn’t bring happiness, Grace persists in seeing beauty only in the “singularity of self”.
At this point in the novel, Grace becomes tiresomely self-indulgent. Nothing pleases her and she regularly dishes out criticism of those she meets: in the general crowd in Kodhaikanal she finds “something to despise” in all of them. Doshi reveals her self-centeredness in a scene where Grace harangues her housekeeper for an absence which meant Grace had to clean up after a party by herself—willfully ignoring that Mallika had sat up all night with a dying child.
Just as the reader’s sympathy is about to run out, the crisis comes. Having lingered in Madras, Grace returns home to find the house empty. Mallika has run off leaving Lucia helpless for several days until she is rescued by the mistress of her former care home where she is once again incarcerated. Under a charge of neglect, Grace is barred from access to her sister.
With whatever family structure she had loosely strung together now gone, Grace belatedly recognizes that the freedom from human connection which she sought was not actually what she wanted or needed. She then goes about rebuilding a proper home for Lucia and herself, achieving fulfillment in the process. Her final realization, that “it’s not about living away from the world but living in it,” is a thought-provoking theory for those experiencing an existential crisis of their own.