The Unexpected Son by Shobhan Bantwal

By Ekta R. Garg

February 20, 2013

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman’s life takes an unforeseen turn when she receives an anonymous letter in the mail.  A “well-wisher” informs the woman that her son suffers from leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant.  The young man will die without it, and suddenly the woman’s entire world reels.  How can she have a son on the brink of death when she thought he’d already died in childbirth?  Author Shobhan Bantwal offers readers this heart-wrenching premise in her novel The Unexpected Son.

Vinita comes from a conservative family.  Her older brother, a star student and up-and-coming chartered accountant, has always kept a close eye on Vinita.  But now that he lives in Bombay, away from their small hometown of Palgaum, Vinita finds herself at 19 free to exercise her choices.  And despite her common sense, despite her traditional upbringing, despite the warnings from her best friend to the contrary, Vinita starts a tentative friendship with the college playboy.  The friendship quickly blossoms into a relationship, and before long Vinita finds out she’s pregnant.  When she tells the boy about the baby, he crushes her spirit in the cruelest way possible—and Vinita is left with the difficult choice of what to do with the baby.

Her family becomes devastated at her announcement, but they come together to support Vinita.  She leaves the small town with its lightning-speed grapevine and moves in with her brother until she reaches full term.  Just days before her delivery, however, she contracts pneumonia and loses any strength to follow through with a natural birth.  She agrees reluctantly to a C-section, and when she wakes up her family tells her the baby died in utero.

Vinita finds herself falling apart at the news, but with her family’s moral support she pulls through the traumatic situation and starts a new life for herself.  Eventually she agrees to an arranged marriage, and through the bond of marriage Vinita falls head over heels in love with her husband.  They make their home in New Jersey, thousands of miles away from Palgaum and Vinita’s past—until she receives a letter telling her that her past still beckons and needs her.  And now Vinita has a choice: should she go to India and try to help her son, or should she just leave her past alone?

Author Bantwal handles with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding the racial and political tensions that form the backdrop of the story.  Vinita’s family belongs to one particular ethnic background, and her rogue boyfriend belongs to the rival ethnicity.  Their illicit relationship highlights the real-life stress often found in towns such as Palgaum (now Belgaum and officially listed as part of the Indian state of Karnataka) where two or three ethnic majorities fight for the right to declare the town as belonging to one state versus another.  These tensions often erupt in violent backlashes, and Bantwal uses these actual events to their maximum effect.

The tone of The Unexpected Son carries more gravity than Bantwal’s later novel, The Reluctant Matchmaker, and the tone suits her story.  Vinita’s situation in The Unexpected Son warrants a more thoughtful approach, and in this regard Bantwal scores big.

Readers might wish they could have heard more from some of the other characters.  Although Vinita is the protagonist and this story belongs to her more than anyone else, the characters that comprise her family have just as much of a stake in the overall story in many scenes.  We only get glimpses of the other characters’ lives, however, and those glimpses might leave readers wishing for a more complete picture.

Despite this minor detail, Bantwal’s The Unexpected Son will touch hearts and give women and mothers of young girls pause.  Bantwal offers an in-depth look at Vinita’s turmoil regarding the prospect of becoming an unwed mother, and she also doesn’t hesitate to let her characters give each other a dose of advice straight from real life.  Bantwal’s characters don’t sugarcoat anything, adding to the book’s appeal.  I highly recommend The Unexpected Son for anyone who enjoys a novel rooted in South Asian values with a shot of Western independence.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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