The Golden Son: A Novel

  • By Shilpi Somaya Gowda
  • William Morrow
  • 408 pp.
  • Reviewed by Halima Aziza
  • January 26, 2016

Torn between loyalty to tradition and the desire to follow their hearts, childhood friends contemplate the cost of their adult decisions.

The Golden Son: A Novel

“My friend, you’re in America now — nothing is like home,” are the first words that Dr. Anil Patel hears when he steps through the doors of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. A long way from his small village in India, he soon learns that no sentiment could be truer. Southern culture, the lightning-quick pace of the emergency room, and the curious nature of saving lives mystify Anil. But the brutal residency program at the fictitious Dallas-based Parkview Hospital and his new, at times unforgiving, American life prove overwhelming.

Just as he feels himself drowning, he becomes head of the Patel house after his father’s passing — inheriting the role of village arbiter — which pulls him further into an overwhelming sea of insecurity and failures. How will he navigate the more than 8,000 miles that separate India and Texas?

In this second novel, Canadian author Shilpi Somaya Gowda delivers yet again a heartfelt look at the nature of love, family, and the consequences of choice. As she did in her bestseller, Secret Daughter, Gowda masterfully develops place and characters with visual richness. She offers delicious storytelling — complete with chai, chapati, and channa — that brings compelling portraits of India to North American audiences.

Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies will appreciate Gowda’s easy style. Although Maladies features short stories as opposed to Gowda’s full-length novel, the voice and pacing feel comfortably similar. Like her contemporary Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (author of Oleander Girl and The Mistress of Spices), Gowda develops multidimensional characters and plot challenges, albeit with a different use of tense and prose. 

The author manages to take readers into the first- and second-generation immigrant experiences using Anil, his friends, and their colleagues as vehicles. She addresses issues of acculturation, racism, xenophobia, class, language, and acceptance, which have their natural place in the narrative alongside themes of camaraderie and compassion. The Golden Son challenges many Indian-American clichés (e.g., that all marriages are arranged, that American ideals are intrinsically better than old-world ones) and celebrates the richness that can come from the union of old and new.

Back in India, surrounded by coconut trees, sprawling fields, and fragrant cardamom, “Anil closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of breeze caressing his face…he allowed himself to sink into the newfound pleasure of being home.” Yet each time Anil returns to his family in Panchanagar after an extended time away in Texas, the idea of home blurs and confuses him. He gradually loses his sense of belonging in India as he acclimates to his environment in the United States.

Although Gowda leads her readers on their adventure primarily through Anil’s perspective, she uses Anil’s childhood friend and love, Leena, to take readers from Dallas to the other side of the world.

Leena, bound by her modest family’s class and means, is married off to a treacherous man from a neighboring village. Through her story of endurance and perseverance, Leena shows us the ever-challenging, ever-evolving position of women. Like Anil, Leena struggles to satisfy the expectations of her family, her position in society, and her yearning for fulfillment. Together, Anil and Leena’s separate but intertwining journeys take several unexpected twists.

The heartache and loss that Anil and Leena suffer will bring tears to many readers’ eyes. Yet the burden of grief is not so heavy as to make for a hard read. Much to the contrary, The Golden Son is an absolute page-turner. With so many characters and layers, Gowda soundly demonstrates that there is no monolithic Indian experience, rather a diaspora of Indian lives.

Although some scenes from The Golden Son seem reminiscent of a “Grey’s Anatomy”-meets-“ER” mashup, none of the medical drama is overly fast-paced nor is the jargon insidiously challenging. In other words, no MD required, thanks to Gowda’s smooth command of both subject area and prose.

The emotional journey of the characters is bound elicit both laughter and tears. Already a bestseller in Canada, The Golden Son is sure the capture the hearts of American readers, as well.

Halima Aziza is a writer and educator with a passion for travel, hot tea, and a good laugh. She lives with her husband and three children in the Washington, DC, area.

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