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The Shape of Family


The Shape of Family

From Shilpi Somaya Gowda, the bestselling author of SECRET DAUGHTER and THE GOLDEN SON, comes THE SHAPE OF FAMILY, a poignant, painful and unforgettable novel about how one family falls apart --- and comes back together --- following a life-changing tragedy.

The Olanders are a family of the world: Jaya is the daughter of an Indian diplomat and dancer, and Keith is an ambitious and savvy banker from middle-class America. When the two met in a London pub in 1988, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but it certainly was something. Now the two share a quiet suburban life in California with their two children: teenager Karina and their young son, Prem. Where Karina is steadfast and serious, Prem is lighthearted and joyful.

Told in alternating points of view, THE SHAPE OF FAMILY bounces from month to month, highlighting poignant moments in the Olander home --- from squabbles between Jaya and Keith to Keith’s life at work, Karina’s bouts with bullies and even Prem’s love of swimming. Set against a post-9/11 backdrop, their narratives are influenced, shaped and motivated by the world around them, even as they strive to maintain their familial bonds.

And then the unthinkable happens. One day, while Karina is supposed to be watching her brother for the two hours after school before their mother comes home, Prem sneaks out to the pool and drowns. Though Karina discovers him, she is 20 minutes too late, and he does not survive. Missing their shining light, the Olander family begins to dissolve.

"This is by no means a novel for the faint of heart --- the emotions held within are too strongly felt, too expertly rendered --- but it is one that will resonate deeply with anyone who has felt the crushing weight of guilt, grief or isolation."

Karina is sent reeling by the guilt she feels at letting her brother drown; Jaya believes she has failed as a parent by allowing her children to live unsupervised for those two fateful hours; and Keith, unable to help his wife or daughter, throws himself into his work, the one place where he feels normal again. As is common in families that have lived through tragedy, the Olanders begin to distance themselves from one another, most notably when it comes to Jaya. Even though she still has Karina to love and care for, Jaya is inconsolable, often remaining in bed until Keith returns home late at night, forcing Karina not only to cope with her guilt and grief alone, but to practically raise herself. Isolated and terrified, Karina makes her own dinners, buys her own feminine products, and picks up a dangerous hobby in the form of self-harm. When Keith finally divorces Jaya two years after Prem’s death, the family is forever splintered --- and it is Karina who suffers the most.

Continuing to alternate between Jaya, Keith, Karina and even Prem, Gowda invites readers into the full depths of the Olander family’s pain and dissolution. Jaya dedicates herself to religion with a fervor and zeal that border on insane. Keith becomes a workaholic, believing that all will be well as long as Jaya and Karina never have to worry about money. Poor Karina flees for college, a place where she believes she can make a new family that can help her heal. Unfortunately, each of them is so accustomed to lying about and hiding their pain that they prevent themselves from moving forward in a real, meaningful way. Once again, no one is more harmed by this repression than Karina.

As she settles into college life, once again feeling like an outsider, Karina becomes the star of the novel. Gowda writes her pain and guilt so beautifully that it reads like poetry; her story is heartbreaking, and she simply cannot catch a break. So used to hiding herself and her emotions, Karina struggles to make and maintain friendships, and though she enters her first serious relationship, she throws herself into it too fully and ultimately sabotages her chance at happiness. Soon after, she meets Micah, a handsome and charming young man who seems to truly see her and her pain, but he, too, is hiding something dark and menacing. Magnetic and manipulative, Micah sees through to Karina’s loneliness --- not only from the loss of Prem, but from the loss of her family --- and plays upon it. He invites her to the so-called Sanctuary to meet his “family,” a found group of emotional orphans who cohabitate on a giant, self-sustaining farm. Though the results are shocking and devastating, they may be the Olander family’s last chance to reconnect.

Punctuating Jaya’s, Keith’s and Karina’s journeys with brief overviews from Prem’s perspective, Gowda highlights not only how the Olander family has fallen apart, but how they have lost themselves. As Prem astutely observes from the afterlife, “[Each] person is reaching, stretching their arms and wiggling their fingers as much as possible, but there are still giant gaps between them. And they don’t have anyone to ask for help….”

Gowda’s descriptions of their grief, coping mechanisms and bad decisions are as compassionate as they are profound. This is clearly a writer who has studied the full spectrum of human emotion, but even more impressive is her ability to render it so beautifully on the page. She never once dulls the intensity of her characters’ emotions, but still manages to make them palatable, digestible and, through it all, universal. This is by no means a novel for the faint of heart --- the emotions held within are too strongly felt, too expertly rendered --- but it is one that will resonate deeply with anyone who has felt the crushing weight of guilt, grief or isolation.

This is my first time reading one of Gowda’s works, but I have already purchased her entire backlist and plan to continue following her. If THE SHAPE OF FAMILY is any indication of her talent, I know that I have found a new favorite author.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 27, 2020

The Shape of Family
by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

  • Publication Date: February 2, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Custom House
  • ISBN-10: 006293323X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062933232