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Family Matters Hardcover – September 17, 2002
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Set during the 1990s in an overcrowded and politically corrupt Bombay, Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters depicts a family being torn apart by lies, love, and its unresolved demons of the past. Nariman Vakeel is an aging patriarch whose advancing Parkinson's disease and its related complications threaten to destroy his large Parsi family. When Nariman breaks his ankle and becomes bedridden, his two stepchildren turn his care over to their half-sister, Roxanne, who lives in a two-room flat with her husband and two sons. What follows is each character's reaction to this situation, from Roxanne's husband's struggle to provide for his family without neglecting his conscience to their sons' coming of age in an era of uncertainty. Expertly interspersed between these dilemmas are Nariman's tortured remembrances of a forbidden love and its inescapable consequences ("no matter where you go in the world, there is only one story: of youth, and loss, and yearning for redemption. So we tell the same story, over and over. Just the details are different").
Family Matters is a compelling, emotional, and persuasive testimony to the importance of memories in every family's history. In a poetic style rich with detail, Mistry creates a world where fate dances with free will, and the results are often more familiar than anyone would ever care to admit. --Gisele Toueg
From Publishers Weekly
Warm, humane, tender and bittersweet are not the words one would expect to describe a novel that portrays a society where the government is corrupt, the standard of living is barely above poverty level and religious, ethnic and class divisions poison the community. Yet Mistrys compassionate eye and his ability to focus on the small decencies that maintain civilization, preserve the family unit and even lead to happiness attest to his masterly skill as a writer who makes sense of the world by using laughter, as one of his characters observes. Bombay in the mid-1990s, a once-elegant city in the process of deterioration, is mirrored in the physical situation of elderly retired professor Nariman Vakeel, whose body is succumbing to the progressive debilitation of Parkinsons disease. Narimans apartment, which he shares with his two resentful, middle-aged stepchildren, is also in terrible disrepair. But when an accident forces him to recuperate in the tortuously crowded apartment that barely accommodates his daughter Roxana, her husband and two young boys, family tensions are exacerbated and the limits of responsibility and obligation are explored with a full measure of anguish. In the ensuing situation, everyones behavior deteriorates, and the affecting secret of Narimans thwarted lifetime love affair provides a haunting leitmotif. Light moments of domestic interaction, a series of ridiculous comic situations, ironic juxtapositions and tenderly observed human eccentricities provide humorous relief, as the author of A Fine Balance again explores the tightrope act that constitutes life on this planet. Mistry is not just a fiction writer; he's a philosopher who finds meaning-indeed, perhaps a divine plan in small human interactions. This beautifully paced, elegantly expressed novel is notable for the breadth of its vision as well as its immensely appealing characters and enticing plot.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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That said, his third book, Family Matters, is perhaps the most universal of them, as it focuses on a domestic crisis of one family and how they cope with it. Although the book is set in Bombay in the 1990s, it could be anywhere in the world. It opens with the main character, Nariman Vakeel, already in the clutches of Parkinson’s disease. Nariman is the father of three grown children: unmarried and unemployed stepson Jal, quiet and unassuming; stepdaughter Coomy, domineering, bossy and pushy; and daughter Roxana. While the stepchildren live with and take care of him in an apartment in the spacious Chateau Felicity building which he has bequeathed to them, Roxana lives with her husband, Yezad, and two sons, Jehangir and Murad, in a newer apartment bought by Nariman, a fact that Coomy, envious and bitter, never stops pointing out.
Perhaps it’s because the sprawling seven-room palatial apartment is rapidly degenerating, almost parallel to Nariman’s health, while their two-roomed small is relatively modern and newly purchased. Foreshadowing of the plot and imminent crisis is hinted at in the first chapter. Confined to his bedroom and bored, Nariman seeks solace in his evening walks, which represent to him "bustling life" and are "like air for starving lungs, after the stale emptiness of the flat." These walks are therapeutic, "magical" and enchanting like a circus or "a magic show." Using his umbrella as a walking stick, he saunters past the corner where vegetable vendors congregate and "their baskets and boxes, overflowing with greens and legumes and fruits and tubers, transformed the corner into a garden." And from "time to time" he bends to touch the "voluptuous onions, glistening tomatoes, purple brinjals and earthy carrots" as they "hallowed the dusk with their color and fragrance." He sees a man selling bananas and the "bunches were stacked high and heavy upon his outstretched arms," and at the flower stall, two men "sat like musicians, weaving strands of marigold, garlands of jasmine and lily and rose, their fingers picking, plucking, knotting, playing a floral melody…"
He needs this time alone; he is a man haunted by his tragic past. In his youth he loved a woman whom he could not marry because she was not a Parsi and his parents would never stand for it. So he marries a widow with two children and even though they have a child together and he tries to make his marriage work, it never does. All their lives are ruined and he remains haunted by what could have been, should have been and what-ifs for the rest of his life. But walks mean that Nariman, afflicted with Parkinson and osteoporosis, could hurt himself seriously if he has a fall – a thought that is anathema to Coomy, who yells at him daily as she watches him prepare himself. She does not help him nor does she offer to accompany him on his walks. Several times he has come home with abrasions on his elbow and foreman and a limp. One day he breaks his ankle and, with it encased in a cast, he must depend on Coomy and Jal for his most basic requirements; they must clean, shave and wash him and, since they can’t take him to the bathroom, they buy a commode which they keep next to his bed.
The smell of his urine, feces and the body odor is more than Coomy can bear. In a gesture both mean-spirited and cowardly, she deviously hatches a plan. She quickly bundles the old man into an ambulance and takes him to Roxana’s small apartment. Depositing him on a couch in their living room, which becomes his home for the next few months, changes the lives of everyone. They struggle, they grow, they learn and they endure. With painstaking detail, Mistry draws the conflict within each character: the guilt, compassion, family obligation versus desire for independence, and the building of human relationships. He also holds a mirror to the characters' consciences, so that they can acknowledge what they are and what they portray to the world.
Family Matters triumphs because its characters are alive and because it captures the moods and conflicting emotions of three generations. This book further seals Mistry’s reputation of excellence and brilliance.
Although I would have liked to get to know a few of the characters better, many of them are well-developed, fascinating people, motivated the frustrations and fears and angers that resonate with all of us. The patriarch is a kind, well-intentioned man who has made all kinds of mistakes; his son-in-law loves his family but constantly loses his temper at them. These characters feel real, and I wish I knew what happened to them "after the novel," always a signal to me that an author has successfully touched me emotionally. (I remember feeling that way about Tom Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath.)
In the course of this fine novel, Mistry succeeded in angering me, frustrating me, and comforting me. The book didn't draw me in quite as well as A Fine Balance, but the journey was also a little bit less painful.
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personalities all feel like people one knows....