by Bharati Mukherjee (Random House, $23.95) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 2 p.m. Sat., April 6
WHEN A story revolves around three daughters, one can't help but think of King Lear's girls, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The king's petty demand that his daughters proclaim their paternal love led, like so much of Shakespeare, to a stage full of dead bodies. The results in Desirable Daughters aren't nearly so bloody, but Bharati Mukherjee's latest novel is also about three sisters struggling with their relationship and obedience to their father and heritage.
In this case, the father's traditional Brahmin world of opulent privilege and rigid structure is crumbling fast. His lovely and compliant daughters, born on the same day in three-year intervals, were stars of the upper upper class in Calcutta, but they chose different paths leading out from under their father's thumb. The oldest, Padma, bitterly resented the patriarch's strictures, but she now lives in New Jersey surrounded by the trappings of her former life, though they're more prevalent among ex-pats than in India. The middle girl, Pavrati, refused an arranged marriage in favor of a "love match," but she lives the most traditionally in Bombay, serving her husband and sons. The youngest is Tara, Mukherjee's 36-year-old narrator. She did her father's bidding and accepted an arranged marriage. Her husband was outwardly ideal; he took her to America where he found Bill Gates-like success. But Tara couldn't accept a life devoted to duty over love and has divorced her husband, settled in San Francisco, and is raising their 15-year-old son on her own.
Despite outward evidence of familial defiance, much of the book concerns Tara's attempt to reconcile the way she was raised to behave with the woman she wishes to be. As the novel begins, she's at a place where she believes all is well. But the appearance of a mysterious young man claiming to be her secret bastard nephew tips everything out of balance. Tara's family taught her that "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," but she finds herself in the grip of a need to discover the truth, even if it means uncovering—and communicating—dark family secrets and putting them all in danger.
Mukherjee does a skillful job of making Tara's naﶥt頢elievable and sympathetic; she's not stupid, just raised in a society where women didn't go against the status quo. The author also weaves larger themes into the tale. Unlike Lear's daughters, none of these three has chosen the "right" path or is "good" or "evil." They're all caught up in the storm that faces families struggling with cross-generational and cross-cultural understanding, and a colonial India still transitioning into the modern world.