Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

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If I had to use just one word to describe Secret Keeper, it’d be “unputdownable”. The other time I locked myself into a bathroom so I wouldn’t be disturbed while reading, I was thirteen and clutching a Sidney Sheldon between damp palms.

1974: Engineers are getting laid off in India, and America’s doors have recently opened to well-qualified immigrants from around the world. When Asha Gupta’s father decides to look for a job in America, the rest of the family moves from Delhi to Calcutta to live with their relatives till they can join Baba in New York. While Asha, her older sister Reet and their mother wait for word from Baba, they must learn to cope with living as dependents in a house already bursting at the seams with an aunt and uncle, three cousins and a grandmother. The one place where Asha finds some privacy is when she writes in her diary, which she calls “Secret Keeper.”

Sixteen-year-old Asha is the sort of girl anyone would want as a friend—spirited, courageous, and dependable. And oh, fun, the sort who’d invent games and make up great stories. Asha loves to read, is a champion tennis player and cricketer, and dreams of being a psychologist. Reet is sensible and good and gorgeous, Meg to Asha’s Jo, as it were. And there’s an interesting boy next door too…

Perkins, an award-winning YA writer, knows how to construct characters so real you can see them breathe and laugh and cry and fight. She hurls you right into their lives, and you come up for air only when you turn the last page, and then only just, for this book has an ending that few YA novels match for heart-stopping poignancy (or Bollywood-style drama). Weeks after reading, I’m still thinking about the characters, wondering where they ended up five years hence. In fact, Perkins, I’ll do your dishes and your laundry all of next year if you’ll promise to write a sequel to Secret Keeper. Yes, I’ve got it baaaad.

Asha’s primary struggle is with the gender expectations of the time and place. Girls from “good Indian families” aren’t supposed to go outside unescorted, or play sports, or want to be psychologists. They’re supposed to value looks over intelligence, place obedience above freedom. And this brings me to my sole problem with the book.

The draconian gender roles and hidebound traditions Perkins describes would be the norm in a rural setting, but appear a tad extreme in the context of the family’s socio-economic category—Asha belongs to an educated, urban, middle-class family. For instance, there’s an incident where seventeen-year-old Reet gets a proposal. I found it strange that the family gives serious consideration to the suit even though there’s no pressing economic or social necessity for such an early marriage. Moreover, the girls’ mother married at eighteen–surely things have changed for the next generation? Perkins’s portrayal of Indian cultural norms isn’t inaccurate by any measure, but it could perhaps have been more nuanced. The theme of poor-brown-women-needing-to-be-saved often pervades fiction set in India, and while Asha does her part, I’m afraid it might not be quite enough to kill that bogeyman.

Furthermore, Asha wants to go to America because “in America, where women were burning bras and fighting for equal rights, they didn’t need curves to snare a husband.” Umm…there were plenty of liberated women in India in the seventies, and Asha wouldn’t have had to look far for Indian role models. The real–life Kiran Bedi, for instance, won the Asian Tennis championship in 1972 before going on to join the federal police force, the prestigious IPS. India’s national airline had a woman pilot back in 1966. Although Asha’s later actions do go some way in undermining her intial simplistic notions of American versus Indian women, I found this aspect insufficiently developed for my satisfaction. Now, I’m the first to agree that the examples I’ve cited earlier weren’t the norm, and my point is not to deny the truth of Perkins’s observations about gender roles in India–I just wish an author of Perkins’s giant talent had fleshed out her Indian scenario with a few more strokes, especially because this is the rare book that truly inspires readers to learn about another culture. One reviewer on Amazon mentions that by reading this book, she learnt “what it means to be a woman in India.” Just what I feared.

Anyway—enough whining! The bottom line: Secret Keeper is excellent story-telling, and the fact that it’s YA won’t stop you passing this book on to your mom—or your grandmom, for that matter.

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A much shorter, and much less India-centric version of this review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.

Perkins has written many other equally readable YA novels, and I recommend them all, especially The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. Visit her website http://www.mitaliperkins.com/ ” a safe place to chat about books between cultures” for a generous list of writing resources.