Mother Land: A Novel

  • By Leah Franqui
  • William Morrow
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sarah Schroeder
  • July 31, 2020

An enjoyable story of self-discovery and friendship that occasionally meanders.

The everyday challenges faced by Rachel, a main character in Leah Franqui’s second novel, Mother Land, may resonate with anyone who has spent considerable time in a new country or even in a new community.

Rachel, an American who moves from New York to Mumbai with her Indian husband, Dhruv, is eager to take long walks in her recently adopted city — to explore its markets and sample its cuisine — but in a culture foreign to her, even mundane acts such as buying vegetables can turn emotionally draining.

And as a white woman living in India, Rachel struggles to separate feminist values and genuine class consciousness from her own pre-existing prejudices and culture shock as she forms opinions about her new city and strives to find a place in it for herself.

Enter Swati, Rachel’s mother-in-law, who shows up on Rachel’s doorstep to announce that she has left her husband of 41 years and will be moving in with Rachel and Dhruv. Swati’s arrival and the subsequent weeks that Rachel spends sharing her home with Swati while Dhruv travels to Kolkata — a business trip that doubles as an opportunity to spend time with his father and try to patch up his parents’ marriage — lay bare the cultural divide between Rachel and the family into which she has married.

Rachel and Swati clash over Swati’s insistence on hiring extra domestic help, Rachel’s penchant for stiff drinks, and, of course, the question of when and how a daughter-in-law should be allowed to say no to her mother-in-law. But even as Rachel and Swati learn to coexist, Rachel reluctantly becomes aware that it is not only Swati’s plans and values but also Dhruv’s that must eventually be reconciled with Rachel’s own, no matter how uncomfortable the consequences.

Franqui, herself an American woman living in Mumbai with her Indian husband, takes a risk by alternating between Rachel’s perspective and Swati’s each time she starts a new chapter. This technique allows the author to illustrate the significant gap between Swati’s worldview and Rachel’s, though a reader who shares Swati’s Marwari heritage — and, to be clear, this reader does not — may not find all of Swati’s inner monologues entirely plausible.

Early in the book, I wondered, for example, whether a Marwari woman who’d lived her entire life in India would really describe her new American daughter-in-law as “slightly ethnic” when she turned out to be an olive-skinned brunette rather than a stereotypical blonde.

Mother Land sometimes reads like a romance (and even features some racy scenes as Swati gives herself permission to explore her sexuality, which she never prioritized during her marriage). But, as its title suggests, the relationship at the forefront of this story is not one between lovers but rather one between mother and daughter-in-law. Franqui paints Rachel and Swati as open-minded characters from different backgrounds who get off to a rocky start but ultimately forge a friendship — with plenty of vicissitudes along the way.

The novel is a quick read, driven by a plot that will pique readers’ curiosity about how Rachel and Swati’s disagreements, large and small, will resolve. Will Rachel acquiesce to Swati’s plan to move in forever? Will Swati succeed in hiring a cook against Rachel’s wishes?

Despite the inviting plot, however, some of the passages that describe Rachel’s and Swati’s thoughts and rumination drag, as they do not always serve to impart wisdom or advance the narrative. Still, Mother Land is a pleasant story of self-discovery and friendship with plenty of twists and intrigue to keep the reader engaged.

Sarah Schroeder was raised in Nebraska. She lives and works in Washington, DC, and she enjoys yoga, coffee, and her small dog friend, Sassafras.

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