Book Review: You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

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This elegant young adult novel captures the immigrant experience for one Indian-American family with humor and heart. Told in alternating teen voices across three generations, You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture–for better or worse. From a grandmother worried that her children are losing their Indian identity to a daughter wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair to a granddaughter social-activist fighting to preserve Bengali tigers, award-winning author Mitali Perkins weaves together the threads of a family growing into an American identity. Here is a sweeping story of five women at once intimately relatable and yet entirely new.

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CW: Parental death and exploration of grief, racism and colorism (both challenged), aftermath of 9/11.

When I attended the NOVATeen Book Festival in Virginia in early 2018, I was ecstatic because it was my first ever book event. And I had the amazing opportunity to have some lovely conversations with YA authors. One such convo was with Jennifer Matthieu (the author of Moxie) and when she realized I was an Indian immigrant, she recommended me this book by Mitali Perkins with the idea that I would be able to relate to the characters’ experiences. While the book has remained on my radar since then, I never added it to my tbr because I thought it was too close to being a lit fic. However, recently I just had this urge to read the author’s works because I’ve only heard great things and I’m so glad that I decided to pick it up.

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The first thing I have to mention is that this is a completely character driven novel, which not much of a plot. And it definitely worked for me because I could care less about a plot if you give me amazing well written cast of characters. This book is like a slice of life story of three generations of women across a span of four decades, and their varying experiences as immigrants as well as naturalized citizens – and I thought it was written brilliantly. The prose is riveting right from the get go; it captivated me on page one and didn’t let me go until I was done in a mere couple of hours. I can’t believe how fast paced it was for a story about the daily lives of characters, and how the author managed to convey so much in such a short book. I felt every single emotion that the characters did – Sorrow, joy, helplessness, frustration and ultimately love.

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The five women in this book are the pillars of this story and anything I can say about them will not be enough. An immigrant mother of two girls who wants a respectable future for her kids in America but still wants to preserve her conservative Bengali identity, a young woman who is frustrated with all the restrictions that are placed upon her and uses her writing as catharsis for venting out her frustrations, her older sister who is burdened by the responsibility of being a dutiful pretty eldest child having to suppress her desire to be on the stage and not an engineer or doctor as she is expected, a biracial young woman who is frustrated with having to choose between both sides of her heritage when all she wants is to belong, and her cousin who maybe an American citizen by birth but feels much more connected to her Bengali and Indian heritage and doesn’t understand why the West is considered a paragon of all things progressive – the story of all these five flawed, strong, resilient women is told in such a seamless manner that you feel connected to them and very invested in what happens in their lives.

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This book is full of thought provoking themes and while some are forceful in the way they are discussed, some are too subtle and nuanced – but that’s the beauty of this book. The main theme that’s very pronounced is how immigrants want to preserve their culture and identity even in their new home, but their kids want to assimilate and adopt the ways of the new country much faster. This distinction is particularly visible in instances where Ranee is always sad that her youngest daughter Sonia is of a darker complexion and living in a prominently Black neighborhood might mean that others would see her daughter as one of “them”; and Sonia is appalled at this discrimination and uses her writing as well as involvement in her school’s Equal Rights Club to fight back.

However, it was the other subtle themes that resonated with me a lot because there were things I felt too at some point of time after moving to America, and I was stunned by how realistically the author portrayed it all. Tara is an actor and the way she tries to fit in the new country and school is by watching American tv shows and listening to the popular music, trying to mimic the mannerisms and accent and hoping that it’ll make her feel more American. While I didn’t exactly do it for the same reasons, my basic American education was through TV shows as well and it felt a bit like seeing myself on the page. And I suppose it is true for many people who are in India or other countries, watching Hollywood movies and tv shows to learn more about the West.

Anna was another character I related to quite a bit because she is very Indian at heart and doesn’t understand why she has to completely change herself to fit among her American schoolmates. There is one very telling episode in the novel with Anna when she feels extremely uncomfortable changing in the locker room of her school because there is no privacy, but when she questions about it, she is told that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies. I loved how this matter is resolved over time and the message that not wanting to be naked in front of others has nothing to do with being ashamed of our body, and that wanting to be modest is not wrong and just a different choice. This hit very close to my heart because I have faced similar situations.

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To conclude, I don’t think I have been able to explain very well in my review why you should read this wonderful book but know that I highly recommend it. If you love books featuring the trials and tribulations of women of different generations and how being an immigrant shapes people’s lives, you should definitely give this one a try. It’s a very nuanced outsider vs insider perspective of both America and India and I thought the author did a brilliant job. However, if you like plot driven books, then I guess you should stay away from this one. This is all about characters whom I could relate to so much, and I don’t think anyone can help but fall in love with them.

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