Amit Majmudar's 'The Abundance' trades fake family happiness for something real
on March 05, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated March 05, 2013 at 6:06 AM
Metropolitan Books, 272 pp., $26
The Indian-American family at the heart of Amit Majmudar's "The Abundance" has achieved the kind of upper-middle-class, house-on-a-cul-de-sac existence that is the picture of American success.
You know what that means, in literary fiction: trouble ahead.
In this case, it's that the mother is dying of cancer. And in the novel's compelling first chapters, she is keeping her disease a secret, not wanting to upset her grown children and the perfect lives they've created to emulate and honor their parents.
It's an effective, even suspenseful, way for Majmudar (who is also a poet and a radiologist and lives in Columbus) to set up the central concern of his second novel. Because although the publisher is billing "The Abundance" as a book-club-friendly story of a mother reconnecting with her family through traditional Indian cooking, it's more an exploration of the gulf between the lives we present to the world and the internal ones we actually live -- and how that gulf may be especially wide for immigrant Americans, who pressure themselves to construct veneers of success and happiness that are difficult to deconstruct even in times of crisis.
As the book opens, the dying mother (unnamed, but the novel's narrator) is hiding her ailment from her children and their families at a holiday gathering, shortly after learning her diagnosis. "I want them to stay happy," she explains to her husband Abhi, "as long as they can."
What she doesn't see, or chooses not to notice, is that they're already pretty miserable. Daughter Mala is a physician and son Ronak is a stockbroker, true, and both are married with children. But Mala has struggled for years with anorexia and feels bitter that she ended up in an arranged marriage because she never fell in love. Ronak, meanwhile, spends all his time making stock trades and working out at the gym, in an unending quest for others' approval.
The emptiness they feel only begins to fill when Mom finally comes clean about her illness and allows her children to see her -- and therefore themselves -- as vulnerable.
This drives her and Mala, in particular, to reconnect, mostly over the preparation of time-intensive Indian meals. These scenes could easily devolve into sentimental goo, but instead they're a wonder of lyrical and transparent writing. Majmudar shows how even in the face of mortality, attempts to clear up old misunderstandings can veer into argument. "I stare at her," the mother says after one of Mala's outbursts. "Anger. I feel my healthiest in months during my anger. I forget everything. I actually feel strong."
That's the kind of complexity that keeps "The Abundance" feeling so fresh and human: We hurt even when we mean to heal.
Late in the book, Ronak, in a blundering grab for both cash and approval from his mother and sister, hatches a plan to publish the recipes Mala has been compiling as a memoir of mother-daughter reconciliation. It's an intriguing way to bring their relationships to a head, and to revive the book's theme of seeking external validation. But it occurs so late that Majmudar doesn't have time to resolve it with much nuance.
That, plus a final scene that feels tacked on to give the book an uplifting ending, weigh down an otherwise refreshingly unsentimental look at one family's attempts to unveil themselves to each other before it's too late.
Justin Glanville is the author of “new to Cleveland” and a critic.