Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reading Journal: "Balancing Act"

Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy, Balancing Act. Penguin India/Zubaan 2009. 236 pp. Available on Amazon.com.

I met Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy at Oberlin College in 1985. Reading her excellent first novel, Balancing Act, it’s impossible for me not to feel the powerful presence of an old friend. I feel in her writing the same humor and quirky intelligence that drew me to her a quarter century ago, the same enthusiasm and passionate sense of the beauty and wonder of the world. It’s difficult not to see Meera herself in her narrator, Tara Mistri. Tara shares some of the essential features of Meera’s curriculum vitae. Born in India, she trained as an architect in the United States, and interrupted her career to become a stay-at-home mother. But this trajectory in life, from career to full-time parenthood, is familiar to many women—and to some men—and many readers who have never met the book’s author will see their own stories reflected in Tara’s struggle to reconcile motherhood and career. As Meera explained to me, “While the details may differ, in spirit the stories is the same.”

Tara has a handsome and successful husband, a beautiful home, devoted friends, and two adorable and adoring children. But she’s still haunted by the might-have-beens of her earlier life as a promising young architect. She’s occasionally visited by a yakshi, a Hindu fertility spirit with feminist sensibilities. With yakshi urging her to resume her career, and mounting resentment toward friends who seem to regard her as no more than a perfect housewife, Tara sends out her resumé and lands an interview with an architecture firm. But Tara learns that going back to work isn’t necessarily the answer to her dilemma, or the way to find balance and satisfaction in her life.

Architecture is central to the novel, both as Tara’s chosen field and as a metphor for creating balance and structure in one’s life. Tara is obsessed with the Salk Institute in nearby La Jolla, designed by the Estonian-born architect Louis Kahn. The Salk becomes Tara’s icon as she attempts to construct a coherent life for herself as a feminist, an artist, and a mother. It seems to represent both balance and contradiction, the inspiring and the pedestrian, the ordered and the chaotic—the material of both art and life. In the novel, the Salk is likened both to a monastic cloister and the sort of building that might contain dentists’ offices. It’s both transcendent and mundane, like life.

The book is teeming with ideas, and the author’s intellect is apparent on every page, but the novel not merely cerebral. Every detail of Tara’s life as mother is beautifully and authentically rendered. You can hear the laughter of the children on the playground, see the Cheerios and juice boxes, feel the urgency as Tara rushes to turn off the television before Barney comes on. Every detail of Tara’s world rings true.

After our paths diverged in the late 1980s, Meera went on to Columbia and the University of Virginia, to work as an architect and a new life as a stay-at-home mother and writer. I went to Brown University, was employed briefly as a professor of classics, and became a stay-at-home father and writer. I’m happy our lives finally converged again in this wonderful novel.

For a set of images of the Salk Institute taken by Carleton College professor emeritus of art Lauren Soth, click here. Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Patrick Ganey for arranging to have a copy of the novel sent from India before it became available on Amazon.com.


Ruth said...

This sounds like a book I can relate to! The Salk Institute is ugly. I can't imagine it becoming someone's obsession or icon, something that could be a metaphor for life. I guess I'll have to read to find out how it could.

Shan said...

I want to read this!

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .