You know the feeling: you’ve worked all your life, sacrificed love, free time, your marriage – and then the Nobel Prize you’ve been striving for gets given to someone else?
Well, Chandra, professor of economics at Cambridge, does. He’s sixty-nine, divorced, and estranged from his children. When he’s in an accident with a bicycle (partly because he needed to buy an emergency bag of chocolate covered gummy bears) something flips. His doctor, a Californian, tells him it might be time to ‘follow his bliss’. Whatever that is.
Cue a flight to America to see his ex-wife and her new guy (a child psychologist who tries to analyse everyone he meets), and his own floundering children. Before he knows it, he’s at a spiritual retreat centre, trying to discover who he really is…
Even if you’re not a sixty-nine-year-old professor this book strikes a chord. Aren’t existential crises the modern day epidemic after all? Chandra’s stubbornness is charming, his bafflement at opinions different from his own endearing. I found myself forgiving his failings – especially when I found him to be perceptive of his own faults.
Author Balasubramanyam makes his novel contemporary, with references to celebrities like Hilary Clinton and Mindy Kaling, and also light-hearted. Though decorous enough to be called ‘sir’ by the zen master, Chandra still finds himself naked in a hot tub with a zen nun. With Professor Chandra we vicariously enjoy punching his wife’s new partner in the face – kapow (no lasting injuries of course).
At the same time, this amusing book touches on deeper issues – who are we, why are we here, and what should we achieve? The questions are not only Chandra’s, but those of his three children – Sunny, who has always wanted to impress his father; Radha, a political rebel; and Jasmine, not quite sure where she’s going. The answers are found, of course, in human relationships – spending time with those you love even while fuming about things you know you’ll always be arguing about. I respect the author for capturing the tensions of Chandra and his family’s problems without seeking perfect resolutions. The style is witty, but provokes thought about serious ideas. If you like characters that feel so real they can’t possibly have been just made up, this is the book for you.
Because, in the end, what is life (Nobel Prize or no) without happiness? And what is happiness without family?
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
London: Chatto & Windus, RRP $35.00