Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: Climbing the Stairs

Most of the time I try to make sure that I don't read very similar books one after another (or movies, anime, etc) but I remember that last fall I had a huge stack of books checked out from the library and was just trying to get through them as quickly as I could. So, hopefully everyone here enjoys historical novels and next week's book is sort of historical as well (well, it's set in the past which I think makes it historical....)

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Vidya is talented at school and hopes to one day go to college, an unusual and impossible sounding dream for an Indian girl in the 1930s. Her father seems open to the idea however but when an accident happens it seems like her whole life is going to change and just staying in school might be more than she can manage.

This was a shorter book which, as is often the case, means I have less to say about it to start with and that's not helped by the fact that it's, well, rather conventional. This is a problem all historical books face, how do you tell a story that is both accurate to the time and place it's in while also making it different from all the other books out there? Here I can't really say that Venkatraman really made her book very different, part of the problem may lie with me since I read this quite soon after, perhaps immediately after, Anahita's Woven Riddle which is also about a young woman coming of age who knows that marriage is on the horizon for her, isn't so sure about it, and must find a way to convince the male head of her house to give her some choice in the matter, (she's not necessarily opposed to marriage, she just wants the choice). Part of Vidya's situation is very similar, yes it's in a very different setting (1930's India versus the late 19th century/early 20th century Iran that Anahita lived in) but Vidya's life felt rather disconnected from the events around her. Yes it was a protest for India's freedom from Britain that lead to her current situation, and helps become her motivation in her ultimate life choice, but so much of the story revolves around her family that I wonder if the story would have been any different if it had been set ten years earlier or later and that's never a good sign.

Perhaps that was what the novel was missing since when I was done I just felt like there should have been something more to it. The story focused a lot on Vidya's relationships with all the members of her family and a bit with her relationships outside her family, we could see her develop a more complex worldwide and articulate more clearly what she wanted from life after climbing the stairs to her grandfather's library, and yet the story still felt empty. I feel like I'm just repeating my Anahita review but I really think this story would have also been better off as a short story/novella (I assume it wasn't classified as one since it was published as a stand alone book and I can only think of a few published novellas) where the story could have been a bit tighter and created a more engaging experience that way.

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