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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A delicate, beautifully written and often very moving book.
'Fasting, Feasting' deals with themes of oppression, suppression and escape. Uma is the eldest daughter of an educated Indian family, superficially Westernised and modern - the father is a lawyer - but at heart provincial and traditional in their attitudes. Uma is the ugly duckling who, sadly, doesn't grow up to be a swan. Instead, awkward, unlovely, prone to fits,...
Published on 28 Oct. 1999

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2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but ultimately not a satisfying read
I found the novel Fasting and Feasting used the themes of oppression and escape well to delicately convey the practices of traditional Indian culture to an uninformed western audience. A predominant part of Indian culture addressed in the book is the obsession with and the necessity for, marriage which often leaves women supressed and mentally weakened.
It is a well...
Published 7 months ago by NickthePick


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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A delicate, beautifully written and often very moving book., 28 Oct. 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Hardcover)
'Fasting, Feasting' deals with themes of oppression, suppression and escape. Uma is the eldest daughter of an educated Indian family, superficially Westernised and modern - the father is a lawyer - but at heart provincial and traditional in their attitudes. Uma is the ugly duckling who, sadly, doesn't grow up to be a swan. Instead, awkward, unlovely, prone to fits, she has to watch while her pretty and vivacious sister, Aruna, makes a successful marriage and the celebrated younger brother Arun makes an apparently successful escape to the US to study. Meanwhile, Uma stays at home, an unpaid servant to her parents, humiliated by one failed attempt after another to marry her off, her every attempt to find some freedom and space in her life thwarted by her jealous and possessive parents.
In a parallel but secondary story, we hear about the tragic marriage and eventual death of her beautiful and brilliant cousin Anamika. The two themes converge at the end of the main story as Anamika's charred body is returned to her - and Uma's - home village for ritual cremation and the scattering of ashes. The tradition of arranged marriages which has been a source of sadness, humiliation - and no little humour - for Uma reveals a horrific side in Anamika's story. Uma is spiritually crushed, but Anamika is literally, physically destroyed.
The book ends with a more or less separate novella, describing Arun's experiences in the US, in rooms at Massachusetts University before being thrust into meat-eating, blue-collar, US suburbia for the summer, farmed out to family friends through an arrangement made back in India. Arun's childhood has been one of oppression, constantly coached and pushed by his father through a series exams and scholarships. In the US, at university, he is isolated in every way from his peers - even others from India - and from his surrounding culture. His isolation is more or less his own choice - his upbringing has made him desire space and solitariness above all else, and echoes Uma's pathetic escapes to the privacy of her room back in India - but is somehow no less sad for that.
'Fasting, Feasting' deals with oppression and the objectification of women in an extremely delicate and thoughtful way. Virtually every woman in the book is oppressed in some way - Uma, her sister, her cousins, her mother, even her neighbour. They are assessed by the dowry they will bring to a marriage, by the elevation in status they will bring a man, by their value as servants, by the humiliation they will bring to a family through work or the failure to marry. Every woman in the book suffers in some way from this objectification - tragically, they often go on to collude with their husbands in the continuing suppression of their daughters. The book brings out the many forms and degrees that this fundamental attitude can take and the many outcomes which can result.
The style of the book is often quite exquisite - imagery of water and flight is regularly, but delicately used to suggest escape and freedom. Humour and even comedy are threaded through the often serious and tragic themes, making this a very light and easy book to read, but one which carries a real weight behind it - its strength and weight are perfectly balanced and mobile. At times brilliant in an almost literal sense - the writing really sparkles.
The book can only be criticised for its structure - its first 60 or so pages read like unplotted preamble, setting the scene in an oddly desultory manner. We then have 100 pages of very tightly focused writing, describing the downfall of Uma and Anamika. The final 70 pages, well-written though they are, add nothing to the main story and could as easily have been published as a separate novella or short story - although this would have excluded it from consideration for the major prizes...
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A moving but funny drama. Bizarre division in 2 stories..., 22 May 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Hardcover)
I had to write to compensate for the negative reviews to this very moving, very funny and beautifully written book. It's true that the last chapters, with the change of characters and scenario, do not fit with the rest and give the book a feeling of uncompleteness. But the story of Uma is one of the most moving stories I've read lately. One reader talks about farce and there is lots of it, and very funny it is (the 2 stories on Uma's 2 failed marriages are great tragi-comic black humour). What it struck me most about the novel, however, is how truly believable the characters are, specially compared to most contemporary fiction. They are not cliches we easily identify with because they represent a part of us (see Brigett Jones and her sisters...) They are "real." I'm thus surprised that some readers find the contrary to be the case. It just goes to show, in my opinion, how far our world has moved from that described in the book. I am from a western country, Spain, which only very recently had still more to share, in terms of culture and mores, with most developing countries, than with the West. While still in my late 20s, I can remember another world, still alive in my grandparents, were family, society and the every day rutines and conventions that make life were completely different from those belonging in my current life. Almost every character in Desai's novel made me think of some relative of mine, or of some story I've heard been told. If you don't understand the reasons or the behaviour of these characters, by no means be surprised, or amazed, or puzzled, but do not question their truth, their authenticity. A beautiful novel. Shame of last chapter.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a many layered treat, 6 Jun. 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
I am writing this in response to the negative comments regarding this novel. I have to say that I thought this was a fantastic novel. The characters were so beautiful and poignantly drawn and the pacing of the interwoven tales was perfect. The real strength of this book however comes when you step beyond the immediate and look at the characters as a parable of the experience of postcolonialism. through this the stories of Uma and Arun tie together and add to each other. If you are looking for something with a bit more depth, but without being turgid I would highly recommend this novel
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another evocative story from Anita Desai, 11 Jun. 2000
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Hardcover)
Anita Desai is an excellent story teller in the old-fashioned sense of the word. In Fasting, Feasting she contrasts the cloying suffocation of family life with the distance and lack of communication between its members. At the ends of both parts there's a glimmer of hope for the main protagonists - but it's left to our imagination whether much will change for them.
She centres part 1 on Uma's world, which revolves around her stiffling family in India. In part 2, Arun - Uma's brother, still finds his family influencing his life in the States, where he's been sent to study. While Desai paints sharp contrasts between the worlds of India & the US what unites the two parts of the book is the disfunctional family.
Interestingly, Desai tells the American part of the story, with all its gross excesses, through the eyes of Arun. In previous stories I've read, she has often narrated stories of India through the eyes of Western visitors. A change of 'view' made an interesting departure here.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An unexpected treat, 28 Mar. 2008
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
This is in part, a compelling portrait of a post- colonial Indian (Christian) family and the ruinous effect of India's rigid and feudalistic social conventions - exemplified perhaps by the custom of a bridegroom's family requiring a (usually) extortionate dowry from the bride's father.

The first part of the novel follows the misfortunes of Uma, whose education is cut short by her parents when they decide that she must help to raise an unexpected first son, Arun. Uma's parents' attempts to arrange a marriage twice end in disaster and both times, the bridegroom's family swindle a dowry from Uma's father (Papa) but renege on their promises of marriage. In the first part of the novel, Uma's patriarchal; Anglophone father is an especially memorable character. There is for example, a wonderful scene - lasting no more than three quarters of a page - where Uma and her mother, attentive to the last detail of his needs, go through the ceremony of peeling and feeding him an orange, piece by piece. It is like a slow, wordless but vivid cinematic close-up in which the part of the father might easily be played by Om Puri - the brilliant, veteran Indian actor. Papa believes in fact that the only way forward for Indians is for them to abandon vegetarianism (one source of their weakness) become meat eaters and adopt the English tongue.

The deeply conservative values and preoccupations of this middle class Indian family are so familiar that, being from Ireland, I felt I could be reading about their landed, rural Irish counterparts. There is a ruthless, financially-driven pragmatism at work, reminiscent of John McGahern's disturbing short story, Korea.

I was not surprised to see this novel described as in fact, two novellas. Part two of the novel is almost a different work. It is I think, also better written. This is a novel that gets better the more you read of it and by part two, Desai has moved on to even, deeper and darker territory. Arun, only a fleeting figure and still a child in part one, is now a young adult and sent by his ambitious father to study abroad in Massachusetts. Through the outwardly impassive person of Arun, we witness the perverse American nightmare - the American dream gone wrong and nothing that Arun would have expected before he arrived. We see the stark contrast between affluent, free America and impoverished, socially rigid India. Both societies share inherent contradictions, but what they have in common is that they are both sick - albeit, the causes and symptoms of their respective malaises are different. India's woes are largely a result of its poverty while many of America's are due to a surfeit of wealth and an excess of consumption.

This novel was an unexpected treat, with quite a profound message that I immediately wanted to read again. Short listed for the Booker prize in 1999.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent novel worthy of it's Booker Prize recognition., 6 Dec. 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai, was an excellent novel with strong narrative, interesting characters and discussions on unignorable human issues. The story is written in two parts. The first takes place in India and tells the story of Uma, the eldest daughter. She is all an Indian family would hope their daughter would not be. Although she is not pretty or smart, Uma does have a kind heart and a strong will. Throughout the collection of life-changing stories that make up the first section, Uma grows immensly in spirit. So much so that by the end she has found a place for herself in Indian society where she can show her individuality. The second part of the book focuses on Uma's younger brother Arun who is attending school in Massachusetts. During the novel, he stays with a family for the summer while school is out. This section of the book held eerie revelations about American society. Besides discussing the issue of eating disorders, it also touched on the diminishing of the family structure and the American obsession with materialism. Through Arun's thoughts and feelings the reader is able to see the problems and obstacles that plague society. During Arun's stay, he grows as a character making the end of the book very touching. Entertwined in all of these other concepts is the issue of food. One of the most interesting points in this book is how Desai compares American and Indian cultures through the way they view food. By using this interesting tool of comparison and involving the reader in her work Desai creates a captivating novel that forces the reader to look closely at their own values.
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5.0 out of 5 stars India USA: Two stories in one book, 3 April 2014
By 
ADAM (London, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
I have really enjoyed reading this novel. It is written well, flows smoothly but not blandly, and is compellingly interesting. The characters in it are well-portrayed and extremely believable. Ms Desai makes sharp but pertinent observations about life in India and the USA. The pictures that she paints with her prose are startlingly realistic, yet also gentle.

The book is divided into two parts. The first and longest is set somewhere in India. We are shown the intimate details of a family consisting of two sisters, a son, and their ageing parents. Uma, the older of the two daughters, is what many people might call a ‘clutz’. She is practically and intellectually inept. Her parents, whose dreadful behaviour is frustratingly credible, try to make her into their domestic servant. They try to get her married more than once, losing a great deal of dowry money in their attempts to do so. Eventually, she is ‘married off’, but this turns out to be disastrous although through no fault of her own. Yet, despite her disappointing aspects, the reader learns that she is a real human with her own peculiar spiritual interests and aspirations.

Uma’s sister marries well, and moves to Bombay. What is initially considered to be a successful marital coup eventually proves otherwise. Meanwhile, the son of the family Arun goes to the USA to study.

The second shorter part of the novel follows Arun’s life in the USA. A bleak but utterly credible picture of life in suburban America unfolds. Arun, regarded as being an oddity by his hosts, feels the same about them.

If the first and second parts of this beautiful tale about dysfunction in families are somehow connected, then I must have missed the connection. Nevertheless, this did not detract from my enjoyment of a wonderful piece of writing.

Review by author of "SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ", a book about Yugoslavia
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, 23 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
In her novel, Fasting, Feasting, Anita Desai eventually accomplishes what many writers attempt and then fail to achieve. She uses light touch, simple language, uncomplicated structure, but at the same time addresses some very big issues and makes a point.

Uma and Arun are children of Mamapapa, the apparently indivisible common identity that parents present. These parents, however, are not at all alike. Mama is protective, perhaps selfish, and not a little indolent. Papa is a parsimonious control freak who locks away the telephone because someone might use it. But they are at least together. Their relationship has survived, despite the long wait for a son, and their disappointment at his disability.

Uma and Arun also have a sister, Aruna. She is bright and pretty, but in her own way she is also disabled, because she is a woman. Arun's disability is visible, but Aruna's exists because of the her society's preconceptions about women.

Uma is not pretty, nor is she academic. She wears thick glasses and has fits. And so in the middle class society the family inhabits, Uma can pursue only two possible roles. Either she can be married off, or she can become a labourer, a near slave for the family. The former, of course, is the same as the latter. Only the location is different. For Uma marriage doesn't happen. It does, but it fails before it starts, since the groom was already married and merely wanted to collect another dowry. The arranged marriages of both Uma's sister and her cousin also fail. Initially well starred, both end tragically.

The first part of Fasting, Feasting suggests a domestic drama, a faintly comic family trying to cope with their own cultural minority status within India's vastness. It takes awhile for the tragic elements of the story to surface. But when they do, they also disappoint, because only the two disabled characters, Uma and Arun, eventually display any honesty or compassion, everyone else being merely selfish, even those who kill themselves to end the pain. For women, it seems, even achievement is nothing but an asset to assist their trade. When offered a place at Oxford, a girl's duty precludes acceptance and necessity frames the letter as evidence of her greater eligibility. So what seemed to be a pleasant family tale of the idiosyncrasies of culture becomes a tragedy, and a tragedy for all women. Ugly, unmemorable Uma is the only apparent survivor, and that only because she is not even a competitor. She exists on the scraps of life she is allowed.

But what of Arun, the disabled boy? Well he is quite a bright lad. He goes to university in the USA, and to an institution with status in Massachusetts. But what is he to do in the holidays when the college is closed? We can't afford to bring his all the way home, concludes parsimonious Papa.

So Arun lodges with the Pattons, an all-American nuclear family, an American Dream of sorts, mum, dad, two kids, one of each. But Dad is a laconic type. A beer from the fridge keeps him quiet. The son has all kinds of ambitions, and yet none that are realistic. Mom is an emotional wreck. She years for something in her confusion, but has not idea what it might be. And her daughter is bulimic. Happy families.

So through Arun's eyes, and to some extent as a result of his culturally challenging presence, Anita Desai presents a picture of middle class American life that is utterly dysfunctional. But it is again the women who are most deeply affected. Mom does all the shopping and cooking to feed the unappreciative men and the daughter who cannot eat. She fantasises about Arun's cultural authenticity, sees in him qualities for which she yearns. The daughter is a complete head case. She is fat wanting to be thin, eating to fast, stuffing sweets until she vomits, perhaps a slave to a male-generated concept of female perfection. And Arun witnesses all of this. Eventually, in his deformity, he is the only presence that is not self-obsessed.

The title is important. Fasting, Feasting presents apparent opposites, two contrasting, if imbalanced scenarios, India and the USA. It offers two deformed observers, Uma and Arun. It unpicks two contrasting cultures and finds that women are slaves in both. The opposites are thus ultimately similar, hardly opposed.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but ultimately not a satisfying read, 8 Oct. 2014
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
I found the novel Fasting and Feasting used the themes of oppression and escape well to delicately convey the practices of traditional Indian culture to an uninformed western audience. A predominant part of Indian culture addressed in the book is the obsession with and the necessity for, marriage which often leaves women supressed and mentally weakened.
It is a well written and evocative novel which raises awareness of the oppression of women in less economically developed countries and contrasts this with attitudes in the USA. The rambling disorganised structure of the novel leaves it with no momentum, direction or climax which may reflect the melancholy and almost pre-determined lives of the characters. It is peaceful yet the enormity of description can more often than not feel monotonous and tedious for those who are not engaged by the underlying themes of objectification of women, oppression and escape. The slow pace and lack of a storyline can make it an unfulfilling read. Although it contains interesting lexical choices and holds dark undertones which come to prominence as the story reaches its climax, this book is slow burning with a limited plotline and not one for those looking to find a thrilling page turner or linguistic stimulation.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Two lifestyles to sink the spirits, 20 Sept. 2008
By 
Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Fasting, Feasting (Paperback)
Poor Uma. Drab, a dismal failure at school and stifled by the benign tyranny of MamaPapa in a close-knit traditional Indian family, she then begins to suffer from fits. Unsurprisingly, all attempts by her family to marry her off result each time in disgrace and instead she is groomed for a spinster life of domestic servitude. To add to her humiliation, marriage offers pour in for her younger sister and then her even younger brother wins a scholarship to study in the United States.
Lucky him, you would think to escape such a suffocating environment. But think again. During the summer recess when he is obliged to quit the halls of residence, he is ensconced with an American family in white picket-fence New England suburbia. Here we get a glimpse into how it feels to be culturally alienated, not to mention the excess that has turned Americans into a nation of suicide eaters. Well written in clear English prose and in a dry, humorous style (if you can find humour in the oppression and isolation of a young woman, or in bulimia, that is), Fasting, Feasting has a lot to say about the greedy, sanitised way we live in the West without suggesting that we have necessarily let slip any attractive alternatives in our rush to consume.
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Fasting, Feasting
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai (Paperback - 1 Jun. 2000)
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