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The Vine of Desire: Chitra Banerjee
July 13, 2002


If reviewing first fiction is hard, reviewing established writers is harder. For one, you have to constantly grapple with the phantom of their literary reputation. Then there is the more real phenomenon of coping with bestseller listings...The Vine of Desire is a difficult book to review. It is neither outrightly bad so you can slam it shut and toss it aside and nor is it outrightly good so you can gush suitably over it and recommend it…

The Vine of Desire is a sequel to Sister of My Heart. The truth is I like sequels. I like them better than a book that tells you all about a character/s in one shot. With sequels, you see an evolution; you can trace the growth of that character. This one began ominously with "In the beginning was pain"…and thereafter it rambled, meandered, stumbled, floundered, carrying forward a frayed plot by the sheer force of pretty words and phrases.

Anju and Sudha, cousins and girlhood companions, after a year of living separate lives come together again in America. Anju is recovering from a miscarriage that has unhinged her life and Sudha who chose to keep her girl child rather than abort is now a divorced woman. Caught between the two women is Sunil, Anju's husband who has always nurtured a passion for his wife's cousin. Sudha seeking a measure of self worth, trying to assuage loneliness succumbs to Sunil's need for her and then flees from home, cousin and cousin's husband to be a nursemaid to an old and ailing man. Sunil moves out and away. Anju does her writing coursework, makes it to the Dean's list and learns to fly…. In fact, it's only once Sudha leaves Anju's home, that the book picks up pace and actually becomes quite enjoyable.

If the plot seems limp, the main characters or rather how they are drawn is even more weaker. Most of the time they languish in their thoughts or in bed. The dynamics of reality seem far removed from each one of them. In fact, reality is compounded out of elaborate references to the O.J. Simpson trial, and stories from the Ramayana; one-line mentions of Saddam mobilizing forces, of Germans having wrested from the French the distinction of being the world's largest consumers of alcohol…Perhaps all of this can be forgiven if Divakaruni hadn't resorted to what seems to be a series of creative writing exercises. So that you don't know if you are reading a novel, a commentary, journal entries, or an assignment book. Self indulgent always and at times annoying and at times awfully boring… A writer of Divakaruni's stature ought to know better.

After all she has in the same book managed to create some poignant moments and extraordinary minor characters: Dayanita, Sudha's baby, and her relationship with Sunil. Mr. Sen, the old man Sudha nurses and the intensity of his hatred. Lalit the funny, gregarious, surgeon. And the three old women in Calcutta - Gouri, Pishi and Aunty N, whom Divakaruni captures with sensitivity and humour and with something as spartan as a set of letters.

If you haven't read Divakaruni, I suggest that you sample her writing style with another one of her books. And if you have, you could try reading this at your own risk. In this case, satisfaction is not guaranteed.

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