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3.4 out of 5 stars
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3.4 out of 5 stars
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on 3 March 2017
Such a rich evocation of life in an Indian surburban family, you feel as if you are part of it. In the 'Feasting' section the parents are a single entity- even their name is written MamaPapa . They sit issuing commands, and this acts as a counterpoint to the downtrodden life of their daughter Uma, who has problems and needs that they blithely ignore. Culturally, the pressure is on the son to get a good education and on the two daughters, to make a good marriage. Uma turns out to be unmarriageable, yet when she is offered 'a little job' by a well-meaning lady doctor, her parents are horrified and forbid it. Her sister meanwhile makes a 'good' marriage: but things do not turn out as you expect.
There is tragicomedy in the figure of Auntie Mira-Masi, who is religiously minded and is constantly in search of her Lord Shiva. Auntie provides some very comic scenes. There is humour, too, in the figure of the 'black sheep ' of the family, Cousin Ramu. When he suggests going out to a restuarant for dinner, MamaPapa are "protesting as furiously as a band of mynahs in the thick of disagreement. " What lovely writing.
The second part, Fasting, is set in the US where brother Arun has been packed off to university by controlling Papa. This part seems like a caricature of all that is worst in western lifestyle: greedy, guzzling,immodest, loud- until you realise it is probably a representation of how Indian families see North American families. The landlady drags Arun on food shopping expeditions and returns to pack the food into the fridges, "the gleaming white caves where the ice whispers secretly to itself." Her rabidly meat-eating family has a bulimic daughter. Arun asks himself how "in this land of licence and plenty," there can be such fasting as the daughter displays. When Arun eventually discovers hippy-style alternative therapies, this seems like an echo of Auntie's search for Shiva. The book ends with Arun donating to his landlady, his family's gifts to him from India: as if to persuade her that their culture is better?
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on 11 May 2017
I particularly like the complete change of style, from the section that described Arun's jogging.
Previously the book seemed just a predictable chronicle of daily life, but from here on it changed into a story with underlying menace and unsuspected revelations of the characters.
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on 28 October 1999
'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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on 7 November 2000
I'm sure there is a great novel to be written contrasting Indian & western attitudes to food but this isn't it. Drab uninvolving characters, almost no plot or character development and a second part that it basically a short story which shares a character form the main novel (or should that be novella?).
It is very confusing to read as the the author throws in the odd fashback or flash foward for no apparent reason. She also has e penchant for long, over complex, sentences.
Difficult to believe that this was nominated for the Booker, let alone came close to winning.
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on 8 September 2014
Absolute drivel. I feel I may have missed the point of this novel.
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on 22 May 2000
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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on 20 September 2008
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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on 6 June 2000
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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on 11 June 2000
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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One star only because I could not give it zero. I was on the "People's Jury" on the Channel Four Booker Prize coverage this year, and none of us was excited by Desai's novel. This book is an unconvincing, poorly written homogeny of two disjointed short stories that should NEVER have metamorphosed from wood pulp and ink, yet alone be shortlisted for the award. And as for "runner up", what a farce. The characters are pathetic. The father (retired lawyer) is duped out of a dowry for his daughter TWICE! How stupid. The central character (Uma) is so pathetic you want her to do something, anything to break the monotony and tedium of the writing. I can guarantee that if you read this book you will feel cheated out of your money and will not want to touch any of her other books. Sorry, but if this is the standard needed to be shortlisted then Jeffrey Archer stands a chance next year. At least his books have a story ....Avoid this book, I implore you
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