Friday, September 21, 2007

On Borrowed Wings

The title, On Borrowed Wings is very prophetic. Chandra Prasad has written a lovely novel about family, the early struggle of women's rights, and about Connecticut life in the 1930's. This is the story of a family with internal differences that can't be solved until a dramatic accident kills the father and son. Once the have died, the mother and daughter left behind can make changes in their lives, changes for the better although not changes that improve their family. Prasad weaves together tragedy and drama in a brave attempt to describe the inner workings of a family gone wrong.

Adele and her older brother Charles live with their once refined mother and granite quarry worker father. Their mother was a summer cottager in their small beach town, the daughter of a rich Philadelphia professor. She met and married Pa, the quarryman and was disowned by her parents. She ended up living a poor existence and was miserable. The only thing that kept her happy was Charles, her brilliant son she was training to get into Yale. She was the original helicopter parent, but only for Charles. Adele was there for chores and helping with her mother's laundry business.

After a terrible quarry accident, Charles and Pa were both killed. But Charles had already gained acceptance into Yale, so Ma determined to let Adele go in her place. Yale didn't admit women, so Adele had to take on the persona of her brother Charles.

Once she arrived at Yale, she made fast friends, was an outstanding student, and founded a tutoring program for poor Italian children in New Haven. She loved being at Yale, although her disguise was often difficult to maintain, especially after she fell for one of the boys in her class.

Meanwhile, Ma made overtures towards her parents and began to reconcile with them. They demanded that Adele and Ma come to visit them, but Adele refused. Ma wouldn't take no for an answer, cutting off Adele just as her family had cut her off years ago.

But Adele was stronger. She won a full scholarship and got to continue at Yale even without her mother's permission or support. She did so still hiding as a man.

This book is a delightful read and the story is one that will warm your heart. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is the typical story of girl masquerading as boy as we have seen many times in books and theatre. The story of Adele has more to do with her coming of age in a most unlikely way than it has to do with her hiding her identity in order to go to Yale.

Chandra Prasad has seamlessly woven a fascinating story. The meticulously detailed historical background is very interesting and actually quite educational but doesn't for a moment detract from the flow of the story. And what a story! It crept up on me. I was about 50 pages into the book before I realized that I was hooked. From that point I could hardly put it down. The moody mysterious suspenseful tone of the book, combined with a strong sympathetic main character makes this book a perfect escape!

Prasad's unique gift of weaving history with a fictional narrative and knack for painterly descriptions never ceases to amaze me. On Borrowed Wings is no exception. Before long, I was swept back to New Haven and Yale in the 1930s, immersed in the complicated life of a young woman. I understood Adele and empathized with her as she took risks to change her destiny. This triumphant novel is the finest I have read in a very long time.
On Borrowed Wings is startling and fresh and bold. The premise itself is not particularly new: girl disguises herself as boy in order to attend university and achieve both personal and educational goals. What made this book stand out, though, was that Prasad doesn't linger on the been-there-done-that gender-bender issues. Instead, she weaves together a vibrant history of Yale and New Haven, Connecticut, during the 1930s, and she creates the pervasive excitement, fear, and frenetic energy that is part and parcel of freshman year at any college. The main character, Adele (Charlie) Pietra is an intrepid, gawky, fun, always sympathetic character; she/he is all the more endearing for her quirks and occasionally exasperating behavior. Adele is particularly delightful when attempting to maneuver her way around a fitting for a man's suit, a physical examination in the gymnasium that requires nudity, and a school dance in which--yes--she must wine and dine her female date.

Prasad handles social issues of the day with a deft hand, including the Eugenics movement and anti-Semitism. Kudos to the author for giving what is essentially a brisk coming-of-age story exceptional humanity and pathos. I recommend it highly.

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