The Austin Chronicle

Summer Reading

By Lissa Richardson, July 27, 2001, Books

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives


by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Doubleday, 268 pp., $23.95

This short story collection by the former University of Houston writing professor presents the struggles people must face as they try to secure their relationships with parents, children, lovers, and spouses. "We were happy until you got here," one character says to another in "The Blooming Season of Cacti," and this false sentiment underscores an irony in all of the stories: Pure happiness exists only in memory or in fantasies of the future. Yet we never stop striving to experience it now. In "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," a widow has come to America to live with her son but feels confused by American needs, like washing machines, quick foods, and privacy. She is paralyzed about how to respond to her best friend from India, who writes, "Are you happy in America?" In the title story, a young man and woman are introduced formally, in the old custom of arranged marriage. Both are nervous about the meeting, which, in the San Francisco area, takes on the characteristic of a blind date in a coffee shop. The young man says, "'But the alternative -- it doesn't seem to work that well does it?' ... and [she agrees], thinking back on all the boys she had dated in college."

The characters make surprising choices that all seem to deny the benefits of pragmatism. The widow must learn to ignore what people will think of her if she chooses to return home. The young woman accepts a man with flaws because he is the most interesting man she has met. A mother, on her deathbed in a hospital, regains the will to live by fantasizing about her doctor. Divakaruni's collection presents eight stories about many women who, through unconventional ways, seem to seek the same thing: how to feel at home.

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