Title: The Shape of Family
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Format: Paperback/eBook, 352 pages
Publication: March 17th 2020 by William Morrow
Links: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N
Rating: 4 out of 5 Wine Glasses
The Olanders embody the American dream in a globalized world. Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home.
But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.
When Karina heads off to college for a fresh start, her search for identity and belonging leads her down a dark path, forcing her and her family to reckon with the past, the secrets they’ve held and the weight of their choices.
The Shape of Family is an intimate portrayal of four individuals as they grapple with what it means to be a family and how to move from a painful past into a hopeful future. It is a profoundly moving exploration of the ways we all seek belonging — in our families, our communities and ultimately, within ourselves.
When tragedy befalls a family, blame and grief widen the cracks and isolate the remaining members. A mother who misses her culture, a father who is a workaholic, and a daughter who is searching for an outlet for the pain. The Shape of Family is an intimate portrayal of how lost someone can get when a loved one is taken away and how families can grieve together and separately, trying to find their way back to one another.
Everyone in her family had their secrets, and Karina became practiced at keeping them.
Utilizing first person povs, The Shape of Family, jumps povs and time periods (mostly linearly) between Jaya (mother), Keith (father), Karina (daughter/sister), and Prem (son/brother). The story starts introducing the family through Karina's eyes and we learn that she sees it as Prem and her against the world. With an Indian mother and American father, kids at school constantly remark on her skin tone. Her mother is proud of her culture, while Karina sees any hallmark of it as another way to make her different. She's a bit closer to her father because of this issue and while she has a bestfriend Izzy, Karina ultimately sees Prem as the only one who can feel like her and understand.
This sets-up the emotional foundation for when a couple chapters later, Prem drowns in the family pool. Karina is thirteen at the time and watching him while her parents are at work, she performs CPR but is unable to save him. The guilt she feels from this is obvious and as readers follow her throughout her life, this tragedy and guilt is apparent in every decision she makes. We get povs from her parents, Jaya's guilt sends her searching for answers, which she looks for in religion, and Keith's guilt at his inability to keep his wife from depression and daughter from pushing him away has him throwing himself more into his work. The story though, mainly follows Karina.
“Mr. and Mrs. Olander,” the officer says as they reach the top landing, her hand on the door handle. “I'm not sure what's happening with your daughter. All I know is she needs your love and support right now.”
Karina tries to handle her grief through cutting but when she goes off to college, she finds relief in becoming a new person, no one knowing about Prem. This pushing away and ignoring those emotions works for awhile, until her first love ends up being her first heartbreak and she once again is lost as to how to deal with her pain. Her vulnerability is taken advantage of and Karina finds, what she thinks of as love and family, in a commune with increasingly cult like actions.
This was a poignant dip into how grief can affect a family individually and as a whole. While we get pov looks into how Jaya and Keith are handling their son's death, I thought there could have been more between the two; they divorce and I thought we missed reading/feeling some of that emotional upheaval. Readers also get Prem's pov after he dies and I'm not sure this worked for me. Except for a crossroads moment towards the end, his pov didn't add anything for me and I think having him completely absent would have made the characters stark cut-off even more felt to the reader.
They are flawed, all three of them, but they belong to each other.
Whims of fate, Keith ended up surviving 9/11 because of a delayed meeting but their son drowns in the family pool, and the fact that there is no set time on how long grief can keep a hold of you, were achingly apparent in this story. The way the characters tried to fill their lives with things that turned out to be empty for them and beginning to see that acknowledging, addressing, and processing their emotions through therapy was helpful to them, was deep and thoughtful. The Shape of Family will have you shedding a tear or two as the Olander family rides the waves of grief.