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An Act Against Forgetting

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Vine of Desire

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, has always been preoccupied with memory and loss. When the memories of her storytelling grandfather and her growing-up time in India started slipping away, Divakaruni, best known for The Mistress of Spices and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, refused to be dispossessed.

"I started writing as an act against forgetting," she said at the San Francisco Public Library on January 22, where she was launching her latest novel, The Vine of Desire.

Everyone is haunted by the past in Vine, which picks up where Sister of My Heart left off. Anju refuses to let go, even as her body is miscarrying the baby, Prem. As the sisters begin their new life as one household in America, Sudha arrives with her daughter Dayita, a symbol of her refusal to be powerless in her first marriage. Sunil still hungers after Sudha, and Anju hasn't gotten over the absence of her son or father.

These characters, however, have changed since Divakaruni left them in 1999. "When I came back to them, they were different people with different voices," Divakaruni said.

Indeed, Anju is not so besotted with Sunil that she can't think beyond their happy twosome. Sudha is less doe-eyed about romance, and Sunil is not so much the contented son who made good in America as a restless man in need of attention. The choices now facing the novel's characters are more complicated, for Vine focuses on their desires -- coiled, unruly emotions that often cause them to get in the way of one other.

Although Divakaruni fearlessly explores each character's struggles, she seems better able to tell the women's stories than the men's. Sunil seems to decide rather easily whether he will choose lust or respectability. But Anju is torn up in her struggle to elevate herself -- both figuratively, by means of education, and literally, by means of a handglider -- and keep Sunil and Sudha happy. Sudha faces the most difficult decisions, as she does in Sister, negotiating the perils of sexual longing, family responsibilities, the return of an old flame, the pressure of a new suitor, the need for security, and the need for independence.

The situation is so complicated that it almost reaches an impasse: "a tableau of silence: three people, inside their chests small black boxes, holding inside them smaller, blacker boxes. Secrets packed in secrets: velvet scraps, foam pellets, wood shavings, baby-black hair. Some of these they know, some they guess at. Others itch inside them like the start of an infection."

But, like Edith Wharton, Divakaruni knows how to work a domestic drama with skill and humor. Vine is a richly textured novel that can describe the tastelessness of the nouveau-riche Chopras down to the last gaudy ruby, place us precisely along 280 and 101, and also reveal the characters' troubled depths.

More concerned with technique than previous novels, Vine ambitiously samples from a variety of literary forms, from scripts to letters to college writing assignments, and tells the story from several perspectives, including the baby, Dayita's. Though Divakaruni's attempts to nest the story within the larger histories of the elections in South Africa or the O.J. Simpson trial are sometimes awkward, the writing usually glitters with brilliant elegance.

In this story about pressures and hard decisions, Divakaruni goes beyond indulging in the smells and bells that usually embroider the surface of cheap exotic fiction, asking hard questions and letting her characters, each endowed with a thoughtful mind and a breakable heart, try to answer them. What makes Vine a good book is that the characters often surprise us with the risks they take, transcending their pasts even as they remember them.

The Vine of Desire
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Hardcover - 373 pages (January 2002)
Doubleday; ISBN: 0385497296