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Family Life: A Novel Hardcover – April 7, 2014

3.7 out of 5 stars 220 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* If the first rule of strong writing is, show, don’t tell (and it is), Sharma is a grand master, a black belt, an Olympic champion. Via the spare, guileless voice of protagonist Ajay Mishra, we travel the entire 7,000-mile journey from New Delhi to New York in his shoes as his family—father, mother, brother Birju, and he—arrives and settles in America. There is the joyous, even hopeful dispensing of household goods and favorite toys that can’t make the plane trip. The surprised delight of reading the exotic ingredients on the labels of canned goods in American supermarkets. The breathless anticipation of Birju’s acceptance into a prestigious prep school. Then, after Birju suffers a tragic accident, the suctioning from their lives of all that hope, joy, delight, and anticipation. This is not just the double-whammy smack of reality á la strangers in a strange land. It is a multiple-whammy, full-body smackdown that ramps up the bizarreness of their new world by adding tragic, harrowing circumstances. As extreme as the family’s misfortunes become, Sharma’s seemingly effortless prose transcends any disbelief, and his characters and their experiences will linger in the mind’s recesses long after the last page is read. --Donna Chavez


“Deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender.” (New York Times Book Review)

“There's nothing like the pleasure of being devastated by a short novel. Like Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma writes of the Indian immigrant experience with great empathy and a complete lack of sentimentality. Family Life is a dark and thrilling accomplishment by a wildly gifted writer.” (Ann Packer)

Family Life will cut your heart to pieces but it will also make you rejoice. The language, the humor, the sophistication, the empathy, the insight—all signal a new kind of literature about families and the bonds with which they hold us tight.” (Gary Shteyngart)

“Bracingly vivid… Has the ring of all devastatingly good writing: truth.” (Molly Langmuir - Elle)

Family Life is a terse, devastating account of growing up as a brilliant outsider in American culture. It is a nearly perfect novel.” (Edmund White)

“Sharma is a rare master at charting the frailties and failures, the cruelties and rages, the altering moods and contradictions, whims and perversities of a tragic cast of characters. But this most unsentimental writer leaves the reader, finally and surprisingly, moved.” (Kiran Desai)

“An immigrant story like no other: funny and dark, unrelenting and above all, true.” (Nell Freudenberger)

“A loving portrait, both painful and honest.” (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review)

“[F]ine and memorable.” (Meg Wolitzer - NPR)

“If you're the betting type, put money on it: National Book Award, Pulitzer, and the Book Critic Circle-thingy. Akhil's in the running for a hat trick.” (Amie Barrodale - Vice)

“A heartbreaking novel-from-life… [Sharma] takes after Hemingway, as each word of his brilliant novel feels deliberate, and each line is quietly moving.” (Maddie Crum - Huffington Post)

“An unsentimental, powerful portrait of immigrant life from an author who has been compared to Dostoyevsky.” (Angela Carone - San Diego Magazine)

“Sharma spent 13 years writing this slim novel, and the effort shows in each lucid sentence and heartbreaking detail.” (Stephen Lee - Entertainment Weekly)

“Surface simplicity and detachment are the hallmarks of this novel, but hidden within its small, unembellished container are great torrents of pity and grief. Sedulously scaled and crafted, it transforms the chaos of trauma into a glowing work of art.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“Dark humor twines through Sharma’s unforgettable story of survival and its costs.” (Mary Pols - People)

“I lost all track of time while I was reading it, and felt by the end that I’d returned from a great and often harrowing journey… To my own surprise, I found myself renewed after reading it, and imbued with a feeling of hope.” (John Wray - Salon)

“With his subtly drawn point of view—recreating the child’s perceptions but with the controlling sensibility of an adult intelligence—Sharma gives us a fully imagined world, both hard and consoling.” (Jon Garelick - Boston Globe)

“If it’s tragedy, why do I remember the jokes with such fondness? Most reviews of Family Life have adequately conveyed its harrowing cruelties. But since this Slate/Whiting project is intended to steer readers toward second novels they may have overlooked, I’d like to point out that beyond the sadness, the novel contains a deep, nourishing reservoir of grim humor, thanks to Ajay’s deadpan and dead-eyed perceptions.” (Colson Whitehead - Slate.com)

“Gorgeous.” (Kim Hubbard - People)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1St Edition edition (April 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393060055
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393060058
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (220 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #348,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Thirteen years in the making, FAMILY LIFE, the slender new novel by Akhil Sharma, author of AN OBEDIENT FATHER, is a potent, impressive portrait of an immigrant family’s assimilation into their new life in America, and their struggles in coping with the aftermath of a sudden and horrible accident. Like other great novels from the tradition of the “immigrant experience,” it’s also a devastating look at prejudice, the clashing of cultures, and the ringing hollowness of the American Dream.

The story proper begins in Delhi, India. Mr. Mishra, a gloomy accountant, dreams of moving his family --- his wife and two young sons, Birju, and Ajay, the book’s narrator --- to an idealized America after the 1965 loosening of U.S. immigration laws. However, it isn’t until the mid-1970s nightmare of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency,” during which she “suspended the constitution and put thousands of people in jail,” that Ajay’s father is finally compelled to apply for a visa. Though nobody else in his family shares his enthusiasm, he leaves and lands in Queens, where he sets himself up as a clerk at a government agency. He sends for his family a year later. But before they leave, Sharma shifts the focus back to the remaining family members’ last days in Delhi, capturing the simplicities of the Mishras’ meager existence, the intricacies of class relations in Indian culture, and a growing realization in Ajay of what they’re all on the brink of losing in fluid, vivid, emotionally resonant prose --- a trait Sharma maintains throughout the book.

When they do arrive, Sharma movingly and humorously describes the astonishment the newcomers feel on landing in a place of such unimaginable largesse: wall-to-wall carpeting, hot water from a tap, almost non-stop television.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Ajay is one of those rare narrators: a person who can see himself without inflation, pathos, or self consciousness. He has come to America from India and finds himself to be the in the unenviable position of the lesser second child. Then his brother Biriju has a catastrophic injury leaving him severely brain damaged. His family must struggle with hope and despair while channeling most of their energies to complex nursing support.

Ajay is a child when the tragedy occurs. In wry twists he admits his occasional resentment of the tragedy. Other times he reveals an unsavory hunger to be the celebrity brother of fate. Yet overall he cares deeply for his family. Sometimes he speaks with a God dressed in contemporary clothing. He finds no answers there, "Even if I told you something, I might change my mind." Cast adrift, Ajay discovers that a life devoted writing is possible, and the world changes for him.

Ajay takes the reader with him, and the reader cannot but help feeling great affection for this young boy. His speech is darkly humorous at times. He can be selfish and he can be be grandiose. But all of his thoughts carry the authenticity of a person being strictly honest with himself. The author achieves this without stooping to preciousness or drama. Somehow even in the everyday, the story holds us enmeshed with the reality of life after a fatal three minutes changes everything.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Read this novel for the voice of its narrator--Ajay-- so skillfully and sympathetically done: It is the voice of a boy, then a young man, then a man, facing the ordeal of his brother's severe injury and disability and trying to survive himself in a family shattered by the tragedy. It is a quirky, loving, and altogether human voice that changes in subtle ways as the narrator grows. And read Family Life for its depiction of the closeness of an Indian family and of Indian communities--in this case, in the US, chiefly in New Jersey. The Indian sense of devotion is beautifully, if painfully, conveyed.
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Format: Hardcover
Family Life is the depiction of a family's effort to endure the immigrant experience in America and the tragedy incurred by the older son which will change all their lives. The younger son Ajay narrates his life in this family living in Queens and the many adolescent challenges he faces mainly alone. The voice we hear is intelligent and observant of those around him, of his parents who cope with their altered lives in very different ways. As a reader I felt compassion for each character and wished unrealistically for happy outcomes which only partly visit the family. This is a loving struggling family carefully nuanced by a gifted writer who takes us along with him into areas of family life that are heartbreaking as well as admirable. The book is revelatory…a brief adventure of growing up told by a precocious but vulnerable young man.
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Eight-year-old Ajay, his older brother Birju, and their mother live in India in the late 1970s, waiting for their father to send for them and bring them to America, where he has been working. While they don't truly know what to expect, they dream that America will bring them all of the luxury and privilege they are hoping for, even beyond anything they can imagine.

When their father finally does send their plane tickets, and they are forced to give away almost all of their possessions in preparation, Ajay begins to wonder whether migrating to America is really worth it.

"Till then, I had not fully understood that going to America meant leaving India."

Life in Queens, New York was different than they imagined. But Birju quickly acclimates to school and friends, while sensitive, needy Ajay has trouble making friends and feeling a part of his new home. And despite his family's new wealth, his parents' marriage struggles as well, since his mother, who had been an economics teacher in India, was forced to take a menial job in a factory.

"My father, who had seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America, and made us rich. What he had done was undeniable. He now seemed mysterious, like he was a different person, someone who looked like my father but was not the same man."

Birju gets accepted into the Bronx High School of Science, which buoys the family. Then without warning, tragedy strikes—an accident leaves Birju with a severe brai injury and little to no hope of recovery. The family is utterly despondent and unsure how to move on, day in and day out, between the mounting bills for Birju's care, first at the hospital and then in a nursing home, to their concerns about the quality of care he is getting in the nursing home.
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