Bingo Square: Dream Vacation
I honestly am not sure what I was expecting from this one but between Reese Witherspoon and positive Cannonball reviews, I knew I wanted to read it. It had a darker underside than I realized while also focusing on all the themes I was expecting from the story, such as relationships, gender, cultural and generational divides, and different approaches to life as an immigrant.
Nikki is the youngest daughter in an English Punjabi family. Already being English speakers when they emigrated, her parents chose to live outside the Punjabi community in Southall and instead moved to an English community. While Nikki remembers weekly childhood trips to Southall for specific ingredients, her friends have a Western background and upbringing. However, when Nikki’s older sister Mindi decides she might want to consider an arranged marriage, the marriage board at Southall temple (it’s basically the religious center and community center in one) makes the most sense as far as having the largest potential candidate pool. While there, Nikki also finds a flyer looking for an instructor for an English story telling class. She has been working as a bartender, much to the despair of her family, having dropped out of law school shortly before her father’s death, and hopes that maybe this will be a job that clicks or at least looks good on her short resume.
Kulwinder has British citizenship but has always felt more comfortable in the Southall community. She didn’t understand her modern daughter, Maya, and whatever has happened to Maya has left a dark shadow on her parents. After a large push, she got the men to agree to fund a class for the women of the community, and, as a result, has quite a bit riding on the writing teaching class she has set up. After Nikki hosts the first session, it is clear that there was a misunderstanding in the topic of the class – Nikki thought it was a story telling class while Kulwinder was simply aiming for instruction in basic writing and English for the women of the community. Based on the interests of Nikki’s students, widows of the community, it quickly turns into an erotic story telling class. However, they have to keep this secret from both the community at large and Kulwinder.
In many ways, the community is still very patriarchal, and the older widows are ignored in their community so this class becomes one place where they can be heard and share desires as they either remember happy marriages or put into words the things they wanted but never had. However, there is definite fear of people finding out what they are doing because honor and proper behavior are still very much an important part of what drives the local community. While many of the younger women embrace their freedom and choices, some of the younger men end up clinging even more to the old ways. Some young men, unsuccessful in seeking better opportunities and jobs, instead end up falling into the thrall of the Brotherhood, a group of men who use the old traditions to justify intimidating women in the community to behave, giving them power in at least one part of their life.
As Nikki spends more time with the women, she learns more about these darker sides of the community, and the undercurrents that drive the women around her. While there is this darker aspect to the novel, very much of it is about relationships and how women, especially older women, are overlooked. As a Western woman, Nikki is skeptical of things like arranged marriage and believes she is empowered, but as the novel progresses, her new friendships help her find her voice and her path.
While the erotic stories could easily be played as a joke, and some of the ones not shared certainly are laughed about, the ones that end up in the novel are well written and some are rather racy. The book addresses several large topics, and combines a coming of age story with a mystery with chick lit with ideas of immigration and assimilation vs. cultural separatism, and yet always maintains the right tone for the various topics, mixing between light hearted humor, and deeper emotional pathos. It’s a very fully packed novel, and not everything gets wrapped up, but I think that made it all the more real and life like. Some things don’t have quick and easy solutions but require ongoing work and compromise.
Bingo Square: Dream Vacation (I might be cheating a bit here because I think London is more of my Dream Home if money and work weren’t an object, but until that happens, I have to settle for vacations there).