Some Basic Info:
Title: You Bring the Distant Near
Author: Mitali Perkins
Genre: YA contemporary
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Date Read: August 12, 2018
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Goodreads Summary: Five girls. Three generations. One great American love story. Ranee, worried that her children are losing their Indian culture; Sonia, wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair; Tara, seeking the limelight to hide her true self; Shanti, desperately trying to make peace in the family; Anna, fighting to preserve her Bengali identity.
Review: Beware of Spoilers!!!
Although I don’t read them that often, I usually really enjoy family saga stories, and this one was no exception. This novel spans three generations, beginning in 1965 and ending in 2006, and follows the Das family, who are originally from India but emigrated to the US with stops in Ghana and the UK in between. Before I read this, I was a bit skeptical how you would really get to know five different main characters in the span of just 303 pages with rather large writing, but Mitali Perkins managed to pull it off flawlessly. All the characters, even the side ones, felt so real, and each and every one of the protagonists had their own distinct personality. The whole story came together to show an honest and nuanced portrayal of immigrants trying to achieve the American Dream and although many elements where unfamiliar to me, so much of the story also mirrored my own experiences and feelings when I grew up as an immigrant in the US. I also really loved all the cultural tidbits we got in this own-voices story – there was a lot in here about Bengali culture that I didn’t know, but it never felt like the author was dumping this information on the reader. All in all, this was a solid read that I would recommend to anyone looking for a good diverse contemporary. Now, though, let me go into more details.
There’s the kind of writing that’s good because it is so beautiful and lyrical that you can’t help but notice it, and then there’s the kind of writing that’s good because it’s so pristine, natural, and flawless that it fades into the background and gives you a clear gaze at the story. This book had the latter. It’s written in first person present tense, starting off with Tara and Sonia’s points of view, then switching to Chantal’s and Anna’s. The final chapter is then written in third person present tense with Ranee as the focalizer. Despite the abundance of narrators, I never had any difficulty distinguishing between them. The chronological separation certainly helps, but it was also because each character has their own distinct voice that helps tell them apart, which is always something I find admirable, especially if there are so many different characters.
The novel is also very dialogue heavy, which in this case worked well. It helped establish the characters’ relationships and their background, and helped make their personalities stand out.
So, basically, all I can say about the writing is that there isn’t really anything to complain about. It was simple, but still conveyed a lot of emotion and character distinctness.
It’s probably the characters that make the book what it is, since this is an extremely character driven story and doesn’t have much plot otherwise. I really loved all the main characters and found some way to relate to each of them, even though they were all quite different.
Sonia, the younger Das daughter, is probably my favorite character. She loves to read and write and takes gifted classes at school, so she felt like a kind of kindred spirit. I understand so well how she loves her family and her sister, but also needs some time alone, and her sneaking off to read and write was so relatable. I also love how Sonia fights for the ideals she believes in and how she says that she likes having darker skin, even though her mother thinks it makes her look like a girl from a lower caste. She is so headstrong and outspoken, but also fiercely loyal and some of my favorite scenes in the book are those where she stands up for her family. Her relationship with her father is wonderful to read about, and her relationship with her sister is even better. I love how she asks about a drama club for Starry (Tara) when she doesn’t do it herself and how she trusts that her sister knows what’s best for her. This is the sibling relationship I want to see more of! I also really liked her relationship with Lou. They were so well suited for one another – both smart and extremely competitive, but loving at the same time. I loved how Sonia didn’t let anyone tell her that she couldn’t have a relationship with an African-American man and married him even against her mother’s wishes. And I loved how Starry supported her all the way, even when Ranee didn’t.
Tara, in turn, was a character I related to less, but that didn’t diminish my love for her. It was admirable to see how she pursued her love for acting with a passion, knowing that she could be successful. Like Sonia, she also doesn’t want others to tell her what to do, and I thought you could see that adorably in her relationship with Amit, the guy she tried so hard not to fall for since their parents tried to arrange their marriage. Starry is also so supportive of her sister all the time. She accompanies Sonia to the library even though she finds it incredibly boring, just because she knows Sonia won’t be able to go otherwise. And one of my favorite parts in the book by far is Rajeev’s funeral, when Tara doesn’t hesitate to cut Sonia’s hair and support her in her fight to be allowed to take a role traditionally only permitted to boys.
Chantal and Anna definitely inherited their mothers’ strength, though in different ways.
One of the things I liked the most about Chantal was her struggle with her identity and her final conclusion that she doesn’t have to be either Bengali or black – she can be both, no matter what other people tell her. I love how Chantal is ultimately the one who brings both sides of her family together and I also like how she goes out of her way to help her cousin Anu (Anna), even though she doesn’t always understand her.
Anu herself was also an extremely interesting character. Since Starry eventually moved back to India as a Bollywood star, Anu is American, but grew up in India and feels very much Bengali. I think it’s admirable how Anu sticks up for her roots and traditions even when everyone else tells her she should be more American – because Anu is American. She doesn’t isolate herself from anyone and she doesn’t treat others disrespectfully, but she still likes to wear traditional clothes and doesn’t want others watching her in a changing room. She is also a fierce advocate for environmental protection, an admirable quality especially since she is so shy. I also really like how she struggles to find her place at school, especially since Chantal is so popular and athletic and Anu isn’t.
Finally, there’s Ranee, the one character present throughout the whole book and probably also the most interesting character. Ranee has such intense character development – from sticking to her Bengali values and not being content with what her husband can give her to being a loving wife, grieving widow, grandmother, and finally trying to become more American, Ranee certainly isn’t static. I love how fiercely protective she is of her daughters and later granddaughters, although there are certainly also scenes where I cringed from the embarrassment she must have caused the rest of her family. It was also really interesting to see how 9/11 shaped Ranee’s perspective – how she suddenly tried to become the ultimate American to honor the country she had come to love. I’m glad that she managed to find some middle ground eventually and admire her for the strong woman that she is.
There isn’t really much to say about the plot, since this is such a character driven story. Essentially, this is a book about the American Dream and finding your identity as an immigrant. This book managed to tell that story extremely well and I think the various different perspectives from the five different protagonists definitely helped show things in a nuanced and balanced way. I think this book captured extremely well what it’s like to feel as if you have a home in more than one place and what it’s like to have more than just one cultural identity. It deals well with biases people have towards those with different skin colors, accents, or beliefs without being offensive and it gives a good glimpse into Bengali culture. At the same time, this is a story about family. It deals with the struggles families have to face, especially when they are fighting to give a better life to their children. It’s about drama, teenage rebellion, love between siblings, death, reconciliation and so much more. I absolutely loved it.
The only criticisms I have are minor ones. At times, I thought the book was a touch “over-the-top” and bordered on slightly cheesy. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well, somehow, but maybe examples will help. Like how Sonia and Lou fell in love in Paris, how Tara became extremely famous, how all the girls had to be paired up at the end, or how none of the teachers took the girls’ concerns about the locker room seriously. I think in some of these cases, more nuance would have worked better. Couldn’t Lou and Sonia get to know each other a little in Paris but not immediately go from rivalry to having a crush on one another? Couldn’t Tara have just become an actress, but not an extremely famous one? Were Ranee’s matchmaking attempts at the end really necessary? Wouldn’t some teachers have been a bit more understanding? I didn’t really have much of a problem with these things and the way the novel was written, they certainly worked. Still, I think a bit less would have been more in this case, if you get my meaning. It’s not a big complaint, but I did decide to dock half a star from my rating for this.
On the whole, though, this was an extremely enjoyable and important read. Would recommend!