Tag Archives: family

Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Imagine the chance to find a group of like-minded people who welcome you with open arms, people who just get you, who understand what you mean before you even say it. In The Affinities, author Robert Charles Wilson conjures a future in which taking a series of tests offered by the company Inter Alia can open up a whole new world of social harmony. Adam Fisk, unhappy with his unsatisfactory friendships and dysfunctional family, makes the decision to give the testing service a try, with remarkable results.

Adam discovers a social network that offers support and comfort unlike anything he’s experienced before. Others in his affinity group, the Taus, offer him a place to live after his family cuts him off financially, and hire him when he needs a job. He develops a fierce and lasting loyalty to the Taus and works to defend his group against the machinations of their increasingly powerful nemesis, the Hets.

Not everyone who takes the Inter Alia tests is so lucky. Only about 65% of those who try the service are actually assigned to one of the 22 affinity groups named (somewhat randomly) after the letters of the Phoenician alphabet. As the affinities take on greater importance in society, opposition to them also grows. Meanwhile, those who belong to an affinity group increasingly cut themselves off from outsiders, even finding it difficult to communicate with them on the most basic level. Adam loves his fellow Taus, but he never loses his empathy for those outside his group, and this eventually leads to conflict.

I love science fiction that focuses on society and The Affinities is an excellent example of the genre, taking a current societal trend to its potential extreme. People increasingly tend to seek out the company and opinions of others who share their views and outlook on life, but what are the potential consequences of this preference for similarity? What happens when you exclude from your social circle anyone whose perspective differs from your own?

The author resists the temptation to spell out all the specific characteristics that make you a Tau, a Het, or one of the other affinity groups, and in fact doesn’t even describe most of them. That means no chance to guess which affinity you belong to, no sorting yourself into Candor or Abnegation. While the technology to assign people to affinity groups doesn’t yet exist, we’re already sorting ourselves on Facebook, Fox News and Farmers Only.com. Would we jump at the chance to make it scientific? I’m guessing we probably would.

Genre: Social science fiction.

Read it if: You are intrigued by fiction that explores ongoing social trends; you dream of finding people who truly understand you, preferably with the help of an algorithm; you enjoy books like The Circle by Dave Eggers and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Skip it if: You are looking for the next Divergent; you prefer your science fiction more hard than not; you categorically refuse to read books set largely in Canada.

Movie-worthy: Sure, why not.

Review: A Free Life by Ha Jin

Rescued from the bargain bin at a Landmark bookstore in Chennai, India

Rescued from the bargain bin at a Landmark bookstore in Chennai, India

This quietly powerful novel opens with a married couple, Nan Wu and Pingping, awaiting the arrival of their young son, who is flying unaccompanied from Shanghai to San Francisco. Their son, Taotao, has spent the previous three years living with his grandparents while Nan Wu studied political science, the subject assigned him by the Chinese government. The Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 convinces Nan Wu and Pingping that they must reunite their family and leave China behind for good.

Nan Wu abandons political science, which never particularly interested him. He always dreamed of becoming a poet and had published well-received poetry in China. His life in America, however, focuses almost exclusively on establishing financial security for his family. He and Pingping ultimately save enough money to buy a small Chinese restaurant in a suburb of Atlanta, and eventually a house. They work hard, exercise extraordinary thrift, and focus on ensuring their son receives a top notch education.

Based on that plot summary alone, the novel sounds like a stereotypical immigrant success story–the American dream with Chinese characteristics. In fact, Ha Jin has done something far more extraordinary: delved deeply into the soul of a man and the heart of a marriage.

Nan Wu is never content with his life. He works very hard, but derives little satisfaction from his acquired skill as a cook or his status as a homeowner. He maintains friendships with artists, writers and poets, but always finds reasons not to commit to pursuing his own creative dreams. He loves his son but ignores or shouts at him by turns; he feels no love for his wife, but remains steadfastly loyal to her, even as he clings to the lingering memory of another woman. In other words, he is as complicated and complex as any real person you might pass in a parking lot or a grocery store.

Ha Jin brings Nan Wu and his family to life with deft and subtle skill. This is not a novel of shocking plot twists or stylistic pyrotechnics. It builds slowly and requires thoughtful attention, but the reward is a deeper understanding of what it means to have a good life, a meaningful life. In that respect it reminded me of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, another novel that shows how even the most apparently mundane life holds depths the casual observer could never guess at.

Genre: Literary fiction

Read it if: You are interested in the perspective of outsiders and peripheral figures; you enjoy exploring the nature of art and what it means to pursue a creative life; or you appreciate a deep dive into character.

Skip it if: You have a short attention span, you prefer plot-driven fiction, or the thought of reading a 600+ page novel about a guy who keeps not writing poetry has already put you to sleep.

Movie-worthy: I have no idea how you would convey the interior emotions experienced by Nan Wu and Pingping in a movie, but it would be cool if someone tried.

Review: Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Oleander GirlKorobi’s name means “oleander,” and the question of why Korobi’s mother named her after a poisonous flower is only one of many secrets at the heart of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s expertly paced family drama. Korobi knows only that her mother died in childbirth, heartbroken at the death of her husband a few months before. Raised by her stern but loving grandfather and her sweet, long-suffering grandmother in Kolkata, Korobi has led a traditonal life secluded from the influences of the modern world. Only when she becomes engaged to the dashing but vulnerable Rajat, the son of affluent art gallery owners, does she begin to pull the thread that will unravel everything she thought she knew about her family and herself.

Although Korobi has led a sheltered life, she is determined to uncover the truth and willing to make sacrifices to get the answers she needs, even putting her engagement at risk. The author weaves numerous Indian social issues into the fabric of the story–sectarian violence, union activism, classist and racist attitudes, the interaction of employer and domestic staff–yet much of the basic plot would be familiar to Jane Austen. Can a love match survive family secrets and financial pressures? Will social considerations trump the motives of the heart? Can the engaged couple survive the deceit of others and their own miscommunication?

What I particularly liked about this novel is that the author gives even the secondary characters depth and complexity; no one is easily categorized as completely good or bad. For example, Rajat’s mother, Jayashree Bose, sometimes makes choices that are based on snobbery and suspicion, but she also clearly loves her family and wants them to be happy. You understand why she makes the choices she does, even when they are bad ones. Rajat’s parents’ marriage is also a lovely example of two people who complement and bring out the best in one another, a true love match that has succeeded despite initial family opposition and financial strain.

For Korobi, no decision is easy. India and the values she grew up with pull her in one direction, while the lure of America, where her parents met, offers a whole new world of challenges and opportunities. She struggles to balance her own needs, the ties of family, the promises she’s made, and the commitment to honesty that drives her. This anchors what could have been a sensational tale in real and believable emotions, thoughtfully portrayed.

Genre: Fast-paced family-secret fiction

Read it if: You are interested in Indian society and culture, but would prefer your knowledge wrapped in a suspenseful and interesting plot.

Skip it if: You have a strong aversion to first person present tense narration, or you wince at the idea of a dream/ghost mother giving her daughter tips on major life choices.

Movie-worthy: Sure, this could be a really interesting and visually arresting movie.

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