Title: The Invitation
Author: Anne Cherian
Release Date: May 14, 2012
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction (South Asian)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
VIkram’s son has Nikhil just graduated from MIT and he decides to have a huge blow-out to celebrate, despite his son’s wishes. Nikhil went to MIT to please his father, but has decided that he is going to become a chef. Vikram ignores his desires, sure that his son will want to join his computer company. But Vikram isn’t the only one facing unexpected challenges. His three friends, Jay, Frances, and Lali, all have their own problems. Frances and Jay are married, but they don’t want anyone to know that their eldest daughter, Mandy, is failing out of high school. Lali and Jonathan look like the perfect couple, but their son is having his own academic second thoughts and they haven’t been communicating well since Jonathan rediscovered Judaism. Each of these couples has their own issues to face, but finds that secrets have their own way of emerging.
The Invitation is a hard, clear-eyed look at Indian culture in the United States, and how expectations change and morph (or in Vikram’s case, how they don’t). Frances, Jay, Lali, and Vikram met at UCLA, fresh from India. They assimilated into American culture, but kept some aspects of their Indian heritage. Now, they are each dealing with their children, born and raised in America, and have no idea how to handle them. Indian culture stipulates that children should obey the wishes of their parents. Vikram doesn’t believe he’s being unreasonable by trying to dictate the course of Nikhil’s life because he’s his father. He knows what’s best for his son.
But with a son raised in the United States who feels he has done enough for his demanding father, Vikram gets more than he bargained for. He’s a difficult, hard man who comes across as very selfish, especially when juxtaposed against Nikhil’s geniality and easygoing nature. Jay and Frances are a bit more laid back, but they are both concerned about their eldest daughter, Mandy. Does it have anything to do with culture or heritage, or is it normal teenage angst?
Lali has a unique situation to face in The Invitation. She married a non-Indian, and now must deal with the cultural and religious gulf that has erupted between them. It’s fascinating to watch each of these couples, to see how their past at UCLA catches up with them, as well as how their Indian culture influences them. There are misunderstandings galore, and while there is a certain sense of humor pervading The Invitation, there is also a sense of sadness. Each character seems to be holding onto something so tight – a dream, an ideal, a person from their past – even when it proves to be damaging to their present circumstances.
If you’re interested in character dynamics, you’ll enjoy The Invitation, whether or not you seek out cultural stories. Cherian does an amazing job developing each of these characters, and while the ending is a bit cloudy, she delivers a satisfying journey for each person in the novel. It’s gratifying to watch them come to places of understanding. Whether you’re Indian or not, these characters are incredibly easy to relate to and lovable, despite their flaws (or perhaps because of them). It’s a wonderful, engaging story that would also make an interesting book club pick.