Abhay sits on the grass in front of a bar, on the opening page of And Laughter Fell From the Sky.
The five-lane highway across from Kent State University is as hectic as the afternoon rush in Grand Central Station was, one hundred years ago, in Edith Wharton’s A House of Mirth.
Selden is back from the country and is “refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart” there.
Abhay, too, has returned from a disappointing experiment in rural commune life in Ohio, when the “breathtakingly beautiful” Rasika crosses the street to talk to him.
There was “nothing remarkable about the way she walked” and “nothing new” about her but she was “radiant”, “brilliant”.
Edith Wharton’s novel? Or Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s debut? (Two from each, actually.)
It’s easy to blur the lines, because Srennivasan’s first novel was inspired by Edith Wharton’s 1905 classic.
Could you say it’s a trend? Perhaps Wharton has consistently inspired other writers throughout the years, but And Laughter Fell From the Sky is not the only current Wharton retelling.
Last year, Lev Raphael took The House of Mirth and revisioned it from the perspective of Jewish financier Simon Rosedale, in Rosedale in Love.
Claire McMillan’s debut was also published last month, transforming Lily Bart into Ellie Hart, and doing away with those hundred years, in Gilded Age.
(What are the odds, that McMillan’s novel is also set in Ohio, in Cleveland?)
And Francesca Segal takes The Age of Innocence and transplants it into a Jewish neighbourhood in London.
(If you love making reading lists, as I do, you’ll have the makings of a good one here, along with Wharton’s original texts.)
Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s first novel transforms Lily and Selden into two young Indian-Americans: Rasika and Abhay.
One might expect that the contrast between life in the Gilded Age in early twentieth-century New York City and a contemporary Indian-American family in Ohio would be substantial.
But, in fact, the focus on marriage for the Lily Barts of the world is not that different from the experience that Rasika has, on her search for a suitable mate in the context of an arranged marriage.
“You cannot want to marry Abhay. And not just because of his caste, I can be open-minded if the boy is really special, but what has he done with himself? He has thrown away every opportunity.”
Rasika’s mother announces this early, when she has no real reason to think that Raskia would seriously entertain such a possibility. And, certainly, the dutiful daughter replies “I’m not interested in him, Amma”.
But, in fact, there is more interest there than even she suspects herself. Though not the kind of interest that results in a page-turning read (this is a quiet novel, which concentrates on the inner workings of hearts and minds).
Rasika is focussed on action; she has established herself in a dependable and lucrative banking career and is now equally determined to succeed with an arranged marriage, following the traditional beliefs of her parents and family and horoscope.
She is optimistic that a perfect match will be found — someone who shares her admiration for the finer things in life and a love of beauty, from physical features to fabrics to home decor — and her parents are thrilled by their daughter’s willingness to pursue a union of their choosing.
Abhay has been disappointed by the actions he has taken and is hesitant to pursue goals that he doesn’t personally believe will yield any greater satisfaction. In turn, he has disappointed his parents, who wish he would study medicine, which his grades would have allowed, and settle into the kind of life they have imagined for him.
He is puzzled by Rasika’s willingness to adopt such a traditional view of marriage and openly challenges her intentions and contradictions.
The third-person narrative alternates between the perspectives of each young person, their differences as compelling as their similarities.
For the most part, this works well, and keeps the pacing of the story steady, although occasionally an observation that might better suit one character appears in the other character’s segment.
(For instance, Abhay observes Rasika tilting “her lips inward, as if to check the status of her lipstick”, but it’s hard to believe that Abhay, with only a younger sister and very limited relationship experience, would have recognized this detail in Restika’s repertoire of perfection.)
Sometimes, there is the sense that something has been overexplained. Rasika hesitates to tell Abhay that she wants to impress people with her taste, beauty and elegance, because saying it out loud “would make it sound too crass”. And, when it’s stated that a character is speaking mostly in Tamil with the occasional English word, one might not require the explanation that “this was the way they spoke”, and could simply accept the observation that a particular word (e.g. old-fashioned, top management) was spoken in English, as a way of emphasizing the qualities and situations that are not readily translatable.
However, this additional commentary might be appreciated by readers who are not familiar with the works of writers like Anita Rau Badami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Tishani Doshi, Farzana Doctor and Bharati Mukherjee.
The sort of reader who wants to be friends with the characters in a book? Not likely to find a cozy spot in Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s debut.
But the kind of reader who admires parallel imaginings? Who finds relationships of all sorts fascinating? Who has admired Edith Wharton‘s works despite (or because of) the fact that her heroines are irritating and lifelike?
That reader will quite likely find a solid match to be made with And Laughter Fell From the Sky.
Looking for more information?
You can also find the author’s site here (Facebook and Twitter) and you can investigate other TLC Tour readers’ opinions here:
Book Club Classics!
The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Library of Clean Reads
Peeking Between the Pages
Kahakai Kitchen(Thanks to the publisher and tour organizers for including me in this event!)
Have you already read this novel? Or, are you tempted?