Community and Character

The Americans: A Novel, by Chitra Viraraghavan, (Fourth Estate India, HarperCollins), 296 pages, release date 4 August, 2015.

Chitra Vararaghavan’s The Americans is a compelling, wide-reaching read. The novel, though written in third person, presents the perspectives of a wide cast of characters, most of whom are Indian-America. There’s Tara, who is unwillingly leaving India to help manage her sister’s U.S. home while that sister seeks treatment for an autistic son. CLN is a widower who has heard little from his daughter since her immigration to the U.S.; suddenly, she wants him in her home, though she has almost no time for him as she pursues her own work and interests. Akhil, a university tech worker, grows increasingly paranoid in the post-9/11 climate in the U.S. Vinod is attempting to escape an arranged marriage via an affair with a much-younger artist. Shantanu is an undocumented restaurant worker, who fears his criminally engaged employers. There are another half dozen or so characters additional characters, including an Israeli-immigrant housekeeper and an African-American student in a basic writing course.

Many of the reviews of this book, describe it as more a collection of short stories than a novel, but I think this misses a key point: this is a novel, one whose central character is an entire community, not just a single individual. Viraraghavan introduces us to a wealth of carefully depicted characters—but their identities become richer as we see them functioning within their relationships with one another.

The variety of characters also allows Viraraghavan to evoke a variety of moods: distraction, disappointment, humor, hope, sharply honed honesty.  When I began The Americans, its multitude of characters and brief chapters led me to think it would be an easy book to pick up, put down, and pick up once more. In fact, I found myself reading it in a single sitting. I didn’t just want to understand events from the perspective of each chapter’s focal character; I wanted to see how these events would influence the experiences of other characters.

We’re just two-thirds of the way through 2015, but I am absolutely confident that The Americans will be one of my favorite titles when I look back on my reading over this year.

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