by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Hardcover, 345 pg.
The Dial Press, 2019
Read: April 11 – 15, 2019
Cambridge’s Professor P. R. Chandrasekhar is an emeritus professor of Economics, and someone who has come so close to winning the Nobel that it’s jarring to many he hasn’t (well. . . “many” might be a stretch, who actually knows leading economists?). But he’s also alone. His ex-wife and youngest daughter live in Colorado, his eldest son is in Japan and his other daughter won’t let anyone tell him where she is. While he has no room to complain, clearly bits of his life could’ve gone better. He seems well-regarded by those still around him, and while he’s a hard teacher, he seems like a good one.
After a health scare (there’s some humor in it, don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book), and due to worries about his youngest daughter’s behavior, he takes a sabbatical to California. Things don’t go so well with the daughter, or his ex, or his ex’s new husband (the man she had an affair with before leaving Chandra). The trouble with the new husband leads Chandra into going to a “spiritual retreat” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Any type of spiritual retreat is the last place that anyone who knows this irascible conservative would expect him to go — including Chandra himself. But he goes, and as he’s the type to throw himself into anything he’s doing — no matter how silly he thinks it is. He plunges into the exercises.
And he doesn’t experience a giant epiphany turning him into a spiritual kind of guy. Nor does he find the exercises silly and spends the time mocking the experience. Instead, he starts to re-examine some things. Like the way he interacts with his kids, and how they react to him. So he starts trying with them in ways he hadn’t before — and it doesn’t go that well, honestly. But he makes some in-roads.
He ultimately returns to his home in Cambridge and makes some adjustments there, too. Eventually, some things happen that do permit him to further rehabilitate things with his children — and life in general.
I was really worried that this would be about Chandra finding some sort of enlightenment, throwing off all his accomplishments and convictions and becoming a totally different person. Instead, he becomes more thoughtful, more understanding and a better version of himself — with opportunities for further development. I don’t think that’s giving too much away, I hope not anyway. He’s worked hard all his life, and now starts to realize the price he and others paid for him to work as hard and as much as he did, and to achieve the success he has.
Chandra is a fascinating guy — I like the way he thinks. I like the very subtle humor in his approach and response to things, and wish more people in his life could catch it. I’d have liked more time with his daughters, I liked both of them and we only get to see the beginnings of better times between them and their father. Between family, new friends and new acquaintances, there are just too many characters to dig too deeply into. Which is one of the biggest problems this book has — too many great characters to fully appreciate any who aren’t in the title.
This looks like a “lighter” book from the title, cover, etc. — and it is. But it deals with some bigger ideas, just not in an overbearing way. It’s also not as funny as you’d expect from the description (or the blurbs on the cover). But there are subtle bits of humor throughout, and one or two very comedic moments. There aren’t laugh out loud moments — but there are plenty of smile quietly to yourself moments.
Balasubramanyam’s writing is strong, his characters are great, and he can keep the story moving well. He balances the lightness and the darkness of the story well, and while it’s not the kind of book that has a twist or three in the end, there are some things that you probably won’t see coming until they happen (and feel inevitable once they do).
At the end of the day, this was a very pleasant novel with one very interesting character, and a few too many other characters. Some of which had the potential to be just as interesting, but we couldn’t spend enough time with them because of their number. Trim a few of those, so the reader can focus those remaining and this book becomes much better. As it stands — I may not find a lot of bliss in these pages, but I found entertainment and relaxation and would certainly read Balasubramanyam in the future with great interest.