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Atlas of Unknowns (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – April 20, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description
A poignant, funny, blazingly original debut novel about sisterhood, the tantalizing dream of America, and the secret histories and hilarious eccentricities of families everywhere.

In the wake of their mother’s mysterious death, Linno and Anju are raised in Kerala by their father, Melvin, a reluctant Christian prone to bouts of dyspepsia, and their grandmother, the superstitious and strong-willed Ammachi. When Anju wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in America, she seizes the opportunity, even though it means betraying her sister. In New York, Anju is plunged into the elite world of her Hindu American host family, led by a well-known television personality and her fiendishly ambitious son, a Princeton drop out determined to make a documentary about Anju’s life. But when Anju finds herself ensnared by her own lies, she runs away and lands a job as a bikini waxer in a Queens beauty salon.

Meanwhile, back in Kerala, Linno is undergoing a transformation of her own, rejecting the wealthy blind suitor with whom her father had sought to arrange her marriage and using her artistic gifts as a springboard to entrepreneurial success. When Anju goes missing, Linno strikes out farther still, with a scheme to procure a visa so that she can travel to America to search for her vanished sister.

The convergence of their journeys—toward each other, toward America, toward a new understanding of self and country, and toward a heartbreaking mystery long buried in their shared past—brings to life a predicament that is at once modern and timeless: the hunger for independence and the longing for home; the need to preserve the past and the yearning to break away from it. Tania James combines the gifts of an old-fashioned storyteller—engrossing drama, flawless control of plot, beautifully drawn characters, surprises around every turn—with a voice that is fresh and funny and powerfully alive with the dilemmas of modern life. She brings grace, humor, deep feeling, and the command of a born novelist to this marvelous debut.

About the Author

Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities. She has published her work in One Story and The New York Times. She lives in New York City.

Exclusive Essay: Tania James on Sisterhood and Atlas of Unknowns

Tania JamesThis book is primarily about sisters, a subject I know something about, as I have two, an older and a younger. For a lengthy stretch of childhood, the Older and I attended the Harold Roberts School of Dance, where we were packaged as a tap duet, and while other groups boasted sexy titles--The Jazzettes, for example, or Spice--my sister and I bore a name as dull and durable as our school shoes. We were simply, lamely, The James Sisters.

The James Sisters began their tenure at the ages of 7 and 9. I spent many of those youngest years as a pudgy counterpart to the Older (or, you could say, she was my lanky counterpart), and the visual effect, in pictures, evokes Abbott and Costello, or Cee-lo and Dangermouse, but in leotards and feathers. We were, however, serious about tap dance. Several times a week, we spun, flapped, and travel-backed across a linoleum patch of floor in our basement, smacking into walls, smiling blindly. Inevitably, the practice would end in a fight, and the Older would storm away and flop into a nearby armchair while I massaged my blisters and fantasized about a tapless adulthood.

I think that the Older resented being lumped with me, moreso than I did. But we were also aware that there existed some sort of mysterious syncretism to the styles in which we danced, and the way we could, without the aid of music, fall into exactly the same rhythms and gestures. At our best, when we performed, our four shoes emitted the sounds of a single pair, which seemed a genetic asset that our competitors lacked. Only once did we each try to dance a solo piece, but neither of us turned out to be the Paul Simon we had presumed ourselves to be. We were two Garfunkels, and practicing alone was boring. So we continued with our duets and fights, repelled and drawn back again and again, for years.

My apologies if I have given the impression that this novel has anything to do with tap dance. It does not. But in the attempt to sort through the soup of influences that fed this story, a particular image--my sister and I dancing and fighting in a cold basement--floated to the surface. Of course, I can point to other influences, both literary and non-literary, ones whose connection to my novel I can better articulate, like the statue of a martyred saint holding his own head, or a Malayalam film star, or my grandmothers who perpetually wear white, or a few seconds of the documentary Sherman’s March, wherein a woman complains to the filmmaker about his constant filming: “Could you turn it off? This is important. This is not art, this is life!” And then there are the influences that have exercised their hold on my imagination in invisible ways, like the fear of facing the infinite dark of the audience, and the relief of taking my sister’s sweaty hand for a bow. I can’t say that my life is art, but life has offered a steady and generous stream from which to make it.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In this perfectly adequate tale of bicontinental love, betrayal and secrets, sisters Anju and Linno Vallara live in Kerala, India, raised by their father after their mother's apparent suicide. Crippled Linno establishes herself as a talented artist, a skill Anju ruthlessly claims as her own, passing off Linno's paintings as hers to win a scholarship to study art in New York. When Anju's dishonesty is eventually exposed, her future crumbles and she runs away, surviving only due to her friendship with Bird, a stranger who carries a key to their mother's mysterious past. Meanwhile, Linno, who once resigned herself to being her family's servant, has built a career and, despite her sister's betrayal, resolves to find Anju and bring her home. As that reunion looms, layers of lies and secrets are exposed until the reader, if not the sisters, glimpses the tangle of honesty and loyalties underpinning the story. James paints Kerala and immigrant New York with identical depth and ease, and the story is a readable balance of well-crafted plot and artful emotion. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (April 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307389014
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307389015
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,297,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Tania James is a skilled and gifted story teller whose debut novel is a tour de force. A second generation Indian American with impeccable credentials from Harvard & Columbia Universities, she has produced a literary gem in the form of "Atlas of Unknowns." The novel is set in both Kerala in south India (her parent's native place) and the United States and the main characters are two sisters- Anju & Linno who live with their father-Melvin and their strong-willed grandmother, lovingly called "Ammachi". Their mother had committed suicide. Anju manages to get a scholarship to come to the fabulous land called the United States of America. Regrettably,unbeknownst to the American sponsor, the invitation to enroll in a high school in New York was granted under false pretense of Anju claiming Linno's artistic creations as her own. Linno is a hand amputee due to a firecracker freakish accident but still produces beautiful drawings and sketches. Anju goes through the usual travails of a new immigrant and does splendidly well academically. The truth finally comes out when she is unable to produce any original artistc creations of her own despite her feigning some illness. Thoroughly ashamed and mortified, she quickly absconds from school, leaving her fabulously wealthy and americanized host family of Indian extraction and losing contact with her family in India. Linno, in the meanwhile, has found a job as a brilliant artist and becomes a graphic and technical designer of Hallmark-variety cards and invitations. She tries to procure visa to come to the United States to search for her lost sister.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
This is a novel set in Kerala, India -- and in Queens, New York -- about a family torn apart by betrayal and separated both geographically and by life's choices. It was a natural choice for me: lately, I've been entranced by literature written by Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans. The lushness of the writing and the soaring of imagination has resonated with me. And I also took note of the many laudatory reviews.

As a result, I wanted to love this book while in the end, I merely liked it. That puts me at odds with the literary community but that's the thing about reading: it's very individual.

A reprise of the plot: After their mother's mysterious death, two sisters -- Linno and Anju --are raised by their loving father. The two quickly set off on different tracks, largely as a result of Anju's betrayal. Disfigured Linno stays behind, using her artistic gifts to forge a career and a name for herself, rejecting marriage and compromises. Anju wins a scholarship to a very elite American school, which she enters based on a lie that is uncovered. She then takes up residence with a woman who shows more than a passing interest in her and who may hold the key to the past.

The novel is largely about the never-ending quest for identity: who are we? Where do we belong? How do we reconcile the yearning for home with the drive for adventure? What role does family play in our lives when we reinvent ourselves? All are worthy questions.

For me, much of the novel was told, not felt. There is a certain something -- perhaps the "soul" of the novel -- that just seems to be missing. Some of the plot twists (don't want to deliver spoilers) seem a little too pat, a little too well-plotted.
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By A Customer on April 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In Kerala, India, their father Melvin with help form his mother raises his two daughters Anju and Linno Vallara when his wife and their mother committed suicide. Crippled Linno turns to painting and proves to be a talented artist. However, Anju steals the work as hers and obtains an art scholarship in New York while the real painter remains behind expecting to be a servant to her father for life.

However, Anju's deception collapses when she shows not one iota of talent. Disgraced, she flees with her only friend being Bird, who is connected in an enigmatic way to her late mom. While Anju hides from her family, Linno becomes an artist of renown. She has forgiven her sibling and wants her to come home.

This is an interesting family drama that vividly compares life in India with immigrants in New York. The sisters are fascinating as opposites in personalities yet in spite of deception and betrayal; there remains a flicker of sibling loyalty. Tania James provides a deep look at two sisters whose conflicting dreams has divided and united them in the past, but where will it take them if Linno pulls off the reunion has the sibs and readers wondering.

Harriet Klausner
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Atlas of the Unknowns is a story of two sisters Linno and Anju. It launches off with an accident with Linno burning her hand with fire crackers in their modest home in Kerala. Early on we learn that their mother died, and the death is somewhat of a mystery as is a letter she received from one Bird. The two girls are living with their father and their grandmother Amaachi in a lower middle class household in Kerala. The story moves with Anju getting a scholarship to America, but only after stealing Linno's art work as her own, while Linno evades marriage and instead works for the sister of the guy she was to get married to.

But the book is not just about sisters and secrets, it is about crossing cultures, and Anju observing those in America as someone new, and so noticing what others might not. Also there are hilarious scenes with her host family's son Rohit always using his camera and trying to get a documentary film. The book is also about the immigration and green card trap, about a conservative Keralite adjusting to doing bikini waxing in America.

The characters in the book are all very insightful about others and observant but less introspective about themselves which makes for interesting reading. Tania James also uses a close third Point of View and gets us close to different characters and weaves in the back story in a clever non linear fashion. And when you think you know how things are going she adds a new plot twist that pulls you out.

And yes finally the different strands are connected, as we watch the interactions of Anju with the mystery woman Bird, and her host family lady Mrs. Solanki who is on a show much like the View, as also the attempts of Linno to go to America to find her sister after Anju runs off once her lie about the art is revealed.
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