The Shape of Family

  • By Shilpi Somaya Gowda
  • William Morrow
  • 352 pp.

Will tragedy bind a husband, wife, and their kids together, or rip them apart?

The Shape of Family

The contour of a family is a fragile, fluid thing — tragedy can change its lines and curves in a heartbeat. In The Shape of Family, author Shilpi Somaya Gowda shows how sudden catastrophe can forever alter these closest of relationships.

The novel is told in alternating points of view among members of the Olander family, putting readers in the head of each character and offering a first-person look at the grief process and the struggle to maintain frail connections.

The Olanders are an amalgam of cultures. Jaya is the daughter of Indian diplomats who’s lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Keith grew up in a working-class American family and secured his future as a successful investment banker. Jaya’s self-possession and confidence are the complement to Keith’s overachievement and quest for material wealth. Their union accentuates the best of both.

Their daughter, Karina, is a typical American teenager, but because she inhabits a blended reality of Indian and American culture, she sometimes doesn’t know who she is. She “felt like a puzzle to be figured out.” Her younger brother, Prem, is her anchor, the only other member of their special melting-pot club.

As a working mom, Jaya entrusts Karina to take care of things at home for the two hours after school that the kids are alone. But when a freak accident occurs, the Olander family detonates.

After the tragedy, Jaya starkly realizes that fate has always ruled their lives. How did she ever think she could protect her children? To combat her insecurity, longing, and grief, she returns to her Indian spirituality — something she’d left behind when she married.

Whereas Jaya turns inward to heal, the only thing Keith can do is pour his energy into work to soothe his pain.

Karina must come to terms with the guilt that grips her. She knows it's wrong, but she finds release in drawing blood — pushing a nail file deep under her fingernails or making cuts on her inner thighs. Estranged from her parents, she finds solace in an idealistic community of young people on a commune. Until things go terribly wrong.

Only Prem understands how life and death overlap, one bleeding into the other:

“There are so many ways to die without actually leaving the world: You can cut off a piece of yourself, or your feelings. You can stop doing the things you love or lose sight of your dreams and goals. You can separate yourself from those who love you, or you can never be willing to find love at all. You can withdraw from the world, or you can go through life without seeking anything bigger than yourself. These may all look like ways of living, but they’re not. They’re ways of dying.”

This introspective story challenges readers to consider how a tragedy involving one member forever changes the whole family. How would we handle such an intimate disaster? Would we band together and work through it, or would each of us veer off on separate journeys in an attempt to heal the pain?

Thought-provoking to the core, The Shape of Family is both a warning about how our lives can change in an instant and a testament to the strength we must summon to keep a family whole.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Find her on Twitter at @klromo.

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