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on 8 October 2014
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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on 29 November 1999
It is hard to imagine this could be a Booker contender. I can only assume Anita Desai was shortlisted on the basis of previous work. While the writing is sparse and sets the scene, the characters are unbelievable, hardly grow, and frankly in the latter part of the book barely come to life at all.Desai's portrayal of an American family set my teeth on edge, it was so cliched. Desai may be a good writer, but this is not the book to choose if you are looking for an example of prize-winning writing.
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on 6 December 2000
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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on 3 April 2014
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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on 23 February 2008
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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on 31 March 2000
I was rather disappointed . . . Anita Desai writes beautifully, describing Uma's life and the colours of her life, the people around her with such clarity that she transports the reader to a very real place, that place is where Uma lives.
Part one . . . Uma lives in a place where Uma is worthless, beauty, irrelevant in the lager scheme of things and escape in the form of her sister Aruna, empty and shallow as a shopping trip to Singapore.
Part two . . . this is juxtaposed with an equally empty and worthless 'western' version, this time peopled by her brother Arun and the Patton family. I got the feeling that Desai was trying to portray the atlas weakling in Arun and indeed I did feel he was as weak as a comic-book figure.
Part one and two were tied together with a shawl and tea and it left me thinking that perhaps I had read two different stories instead of a novel and just not realized it.
The language is, however, exquisite . . .
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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 25 April 2000
I loved it! My first exposure to Anita Desai although I've read a LOT of Indian fiction and I felt this was a fine example of the elegantly understated Indian novel. The character Uma was gently tragic in her failed attempts to get a husband whilst the supposedly lucky and beautiful cousin's fate was far more extreme. When the story moved to the USA it lost a little of its direction The ending left me wondering if somebody forgot to bind the final chapter into the book - strange but acceptable
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on 7 May 2011
I love tales of India and thought this one would be an interesting read with the contrast between India and America. There was great potential for Desai to dig deep and fill our scents with rich flavours and and a spicy tale yet she barely skimmed the surface. I found the read boring and was glad to be done the book. There are much better books to read especially about India, I suggest you skip this one but if you do pick it up at least it's short and easy to read.
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on 25 January 2008
The first part of the book is brilliant. It describes the sometimes dysfunctional aspects of the family, is engaging and enjoyable. The reader really feels for the girl. The second part feels like coming down after a hangover. First the euphoria, then the sinking feeling that things have gone wrong. I felt like giving up reading the end of the book, quite frankly. Still a good book.
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