Welcome back to The Aerogram Book Club, where Book Club editor Neelanjana Banerjee brings together writers and thinkers to discuss new South Asian books of significance. Join in with your thoughts in the comments after reading the discussion between Banerjee, Minal Hajratwala and Sandip Roy.
In Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty (Harper Collins Ecco imprint) — proclaimed one of the summer novels of 2016, by media ranging from the Wall Street Journal to PopSugar — we meet Sarah (the rich one) and Lauren (the pretty one), two early 30s white women living in New York City, who have been friends since they were 11.
Lauren works in publishing and is single, and Sarah has been with her boring (according to Lauren) boyfriend Dan since her early 20s, and wishes Lauren was more settled down. As the women enter the serious life-altering moments of early middle age — marriage and children — the novel, in alternating perspectives, examines how women’s friendships can grow apart and also together.
Neelanjana Banerjee: Okay, I am going to have to talk about this book in two different ways. First, the book as a novel, taken at surface value, imagining if I had picked this book up on a shelf in some dusty beach town in Mexico, and took it with me to read in a hammock while drinking a michelada. (Okay, reading, drinking and hammock-ing probably wouldn’t work, but still.) I am imagining this scene especially because this book has been marketed so fiercely as a “summer read”, or a “beach book.”
“I am going to have to talk about this book in two different ways.”
I thought that Sarah and Lauren’s relationship, the way their lives had begun to diverge yet they had so much history, was strikingly relatable (being a 30-something year old hetero woman). I was especially interested in how the book focused primarily on their relationship with each other, so much so that Sarah’s boyfriend/fiancé and later (spoiler alert) husband Dan was practically invisible through the book, as were Lauren’s family.
I found myself more interested in Lauren’s life, with her tendencies towards casual sex and her cookbook editor lifestyle, than Sarah’s uber-rich, self-involved one. I also found Sarah’s obsession with Lauren, and her frequent irritation with Lauren to be grating. (In general, I didn’t like Sarah that much, though I thought it was interesting to take a look at her life.)
The major drama in the book is: Are these two going to break up as friends? At the end of the book, I am not sure this question is quite answered, and that’s okay — actually, it was one of my favorite things about the book.
But would I have picked this book up if it weren’t written by a South Asian man? Probably not, because I am not really interested in the lives of well-off and self-involved 30-something women in New York City. (Disclaimer, I watch Girls, but they are 20-somethings.)
“Why can’t I have a beach book about a gay brown man raising brown sons with extreme style in Manhattan?”
But I found myself often thinking of this particular writer writing this book, and what it meant to have him create these characters and this world. (Full disclosure: I went to college with Rumaan, but more importantly in today’s world, follow him on Twitter, where he posts with verve about his life as a married gay man raising two black sons.)
And here is maybe the problem with social media, when the author’s real life eclipsed for me the life he built for his characters. This is my really guilty ghost feeling while reading Rich and Pretty: “Why can’t I have a beach book about a gay brown man raising brown sons with extreme style in Manhattan?” But that’s not fair to the novelist, who created a fictional world, and did it very well, so well, that I would have never really suspected he wasn’t of the world he wrote about.
“I would have never really suspected he wasn’t of the world he wrote about.”
The other weekend, I was at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, and had a copy of Rich and Pretty with me. A South Asian friend picked it up and asked what it was and I told him about it, and he jokingly said: “What? A book about white people written by a South Asian? We’ve finally made it!” It was sarcasm, but I was intrigued by the idea.
To me, the best part of the novel is the idea that Alam was imagining these women’s lives, so intricately — it reminded me of another New York novel of the same milieu, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman, in which the female author writes into the psyche of a young man who treats women quite badly. But in that novel, the protagonist was sent up for a gentle skewering, whereas I don’t think that is the intent of the novel here.
Or is it? Minal, what do you think?
Minal Hajratwala: Well, at first I kept waiting for something to happen. I thought the author was setting up this idyllic world of privileged people with no actual problems, and then at some point — boom!
Next I kept trying to figure out why this writer would want to tell this story. Was it a very strategic, maybe cynical, career move? Did he maybe watch too many reruns of Friends and Sex and the City?
“I kept trying to figure out why this writer would want to tell this story.”
I don’t know, it’s odd. I’m house-hunting at the moment, and we just saw a house where the people had decided to put a huge washer and dryer in the pantry, blocking all the drawers and cabinets in there. This book had some weird choices like that. Aside from the problems with the characters that you identified, Neela, I also felt there was a serious problem with the plotting.
The moment there was any hint of actual action, it was pushed offstage. Someone dies of AIDS, but it’s the ancient past, and the character most affected can barely remember it. Someone gets pregnant, but the moment she finds out and the moment she tells the father are barely even narrated. Same with the actual sex that led to the pregnancy. Every other relationship and event has to go into soft focus in order to make this insipid friendship seem important.
And then it’s peopled with sort of anonymous brown background characters. It’s like the author can’t quite help himself, he needs to make South Asian people visible, but the observations ring false for the characters whose point of view he’s chosen. Would these characters really spend even a moment considering the Bangladeshi sweatshop workers who make their designer products, would they know that a shopkeeper was Sikh rather than just some generic exotic?
“It’s like the author can’t quite help himself, he needs to make South Asian people visible…”
And then there’s a very odd scene in which one of the characters fucks (can I say that on The Aerogram?) a black waiter, and another character is horrified, and there’s a little kerfuffle of “am I racist? or classist?” But these depths are never plumbed; it’s all just part of the characters soothing their own anxieties.
I’m ok with beach reading but this is more like when you get a cappuccino and it’s all foam. Not my cup of fluff. Although, even saying this, I feel a little churlish, like that woman who sued Starbucks for putting too much ice in her venti.
“What he is really good at is the minutiae of their lives.”
What he is really good at is the minutiae of their lives. Micro-emotions, fashion decisions, tiny subdued conflicts. It’s impressive to be able to assimilate and ventriloquize a dominant culture so fully.
What do you think, Sandip?
Sandip Roy: Yes, I too kept waiting for the big dramatic fall out. Oh it’s going to happen on the beach vacation. It sorta did but not really. Perhaps before the wedding. Perhaps at the wedding…
OK, I won’t do spoilers, but the opening scene of Sarah and Lauren did hook me. It was pitch perfect, sharp, and captured the dynamics of old best friends with just enough bite. But then, honestly, it took me a while to realize that one was rich and the other was pretty. I guess Lauren, working as a cookbook editor, living in New York, seemed rich enough to me, so they kept blending into each other a little. Or maybe I am just terribly sexist and unable to keep my straight white women straight in my head.
“It was pitch perfect, sharp, and captured the dynamics of old best friends with just enough bite.”
The novel is the portrait of a friendship and the small ways it’s tested, but how it still lasts sometimes just out of sheer habit if nothing else. It’s a great idea. Rumaan Alam’s eye is great, for those little details about what makes them tick and what ticks them off.
But as a story it didn’t grab me enough, probably because I didn’t particularly care if their friendship lasted or sputtered or took a nosedive. At a certain level everyone is nice and smart, even boring Dan the fiance, or Sarah’s right-winger of a dad, so sometimes it can feel like watching Friends just without Phoebe. My desi side did want more drama. Instead it all felt very cool and pleasant, but even then there was always a cashmere sweater on the back of the chair so it never got too uncomfortable.
“It’s the revenge of Eat Pray Love in a way.”
I agree Neela, this is not a blind test book. As in let me read the book without knowing anything about the author. The fact that a Bangladeshi American has written a book as eggshell white as this gives it a definite “exotic” charm. That’s what makes it interesting.
And why the heck not? It’s the revenge of Eat Pray Love in a way. The brown person wandering into what had been white territory and giving us Drink Flirt Shop. And more power to him I say.
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Neelanjana Banerjee’s arts journalism has appeared in Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, HTML Giant, Hyphen, New America Media and more. She is the managing editor of Kaya Press, an editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and teaches writing through Writing Workshops Los Angeles.
Minal Hajratwala is author of the award-winning Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents. Her latest book is Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a collective of which she is a co-founder. As a writing coach, she loves helping people give voice to untold stories through the Write Like a Unicorn portal. Her Granta essay “A Brief Guide to Gender in India” was named one of the 10 best pieces of writing on the web for 2015 by the Golden Giraffes.
Sandip Roy is the author of the novel Don’t Let Him Know. He has been a longtime commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition and delivers a weekly audio diary, “Dispatch from Kolkata.” He blogs for Huffington Post and has been an editor with FirstPost.com and New American Media. Roy has received awards for his journalism and contributed to various anthologies including Storywallah!, Contours of the Heart, Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, and Out! Stories from the New Queer India.