Rachel faces a fate feared by many women around the world. Shortly after Leah Franqui’s novel, Mother Land, opens, her mother-in-law appears at her apartment door with a loaded suitcase and no plans to ever leave. Franqui presents a clash of cultures that plays out as two women try to find a way to live together when they have radically different ideas about how to live.
Rachel tells us more than once in Mother Land that she marred Dhruv because of his certainty. After a life of not knowing what she wants, she is attracted to a man who knows exactly what he wants. They married in less than a year, then took what turns out to be an even bigger step: they move to Mumbai. Rachel is more than willing to give living in India a chance. Like other Westerners, she hopes that India will help her find herself.
Unfortunately, not knowing what she wants doesn’t mean that Rachel doesn’t know what she doesn’t want. For example, Rachel does not want the maid to come more than once a day. Nor does she want a cook. Most especially, Rachel does not want her mother-in-law Swati to live with her. After seeing the way her son and daughter-in-law show each other affection, Swati realizes that she has never loved her husband. Her unhappiness leads her to separate from her husband and fly across the country, from Kolkata to Mumbai, to live with her son.
Swati and Rachel have very different ideas about the right way to live. Swati argues that of course maid has to come twice a day and that not having a cook is just not done. Rachel loves cooking so much that having a cook is an insult. Neither of these women is very good at explaining what they want and why. Swati falls back on arguing that this is just the way things work in India. Rachel can’t articulate the American shame of having servants or her satisfaction in cooking things from scratch. Because Mother Land is narrated by Rachel and Swati in turns, I couldn’t help but sympathize with both of them.
As forced proximity often does, Swati and Rachel start to learn more about each other—as much as they don’t want to at the beginning. Swati slowly comes out of her very constricted upbringing and social strictures. Rachel, however, has to come to terms with the fact that she might have made too big of a leap when it came to marrying and moving to India. And, as the characters reflect on their prejudices and choices, they start to realize just how much they have in common.
Mother Land doesn’t end with a happily ever after for Rachel and Swati that we might have expected from a story about two people from different cultures who have to suddenly get along or end up fighting to the death. But it does end with a clarity that feels brave and honest. I really, really liked this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: This book is strongly recommended for people who find themselves in close quarters with people they don’t understand.