Half Girlfriend, by Chetan Bhagat

Half Girlfriend follows the complicated relationship between Madhav Jha and Riya Somani, who meet at college in Delhi.

Madhav is heir of  a faded “royal” family from a poor Indian town where his mother manages and teaches at the local impoverished school. Riya’s family is ultra-rich, a fact she finds limiting, as family and class expectations hinder her personal dreams.

Madhav falls for Riya at first sight and a shared interest in basketball gives him the hope of initiating and furthering a relationship with her; but while Riya encourages close friendship, she makes it clear that she doesn’t want a full “girlfriend-boyfriend” relationship, a situation Madhav finds hard to accept. What does Riya mean by “half girlfriend” anyway?

Through breakup, forgiveness, reconciliation and heartbreak the relationship between the two is never easy when each seems to want something different. What would it take for their situation to be resolved?

And what roles do the book’s  author (Chetan Bhagat himself) and Bill Gates play in the couple’s attempt to maintain their relationship despite their differing desires and expectations?

 

This is another book I found while trawling through the shelves of  a local charity shop. I’ve been looking for books by authors of non-western backgrounds because I find they give a different perspective to “western” writers.

Half Girlfriend could be included in the same kind of  category as Mike Gayle’s books: stories I can always rely on to help me overcome “reader’s block” – when I need to read a book I know I won’t be able to put down until its finished. Mike Gayle is someone I turn to when I’ve read one too many “worthy” novels and need to rediscover a love of reading for reading’s sake, when story is given priority over the author’s clever wordplay. I found this book had  a similar appeal to Gayle’s work, the main differences being its setting and the cultural background of the characters, both of which play a significant part of the story.

As evidence of how much I enjoyed the book, I chose to order a boxed set of 8 of Bhagat’s books (which includes a new copy of this one). He’s someone whose work I’d like to read beyond this one story.

In trying to find out more about his writing, I found that some of his books have been adapted into Bollywood films. Half Girlfriend seems to be the most recent adaptation. After watching the trailer (see below), I hope it’s a film that will eventually be released on DVD.

According to what I’ve read about Bhagat, his first language isn’t English, but he writes in English for a mainly Indian readership and sells far fewer copies outside of India than he does in his homeland. After reading half way through my charity-store copy I came across the receipt from the original book purchase: at an airport shop in Mumbai (for 176 Indian Rupees).

The following description of Bhagat was in the Guardian:

…the 39-year-old Punjabi is one of India’s most successful English-language novelists currently at work. Unlike Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga, however, he has not been adopted by London’s literati, anointed the “authentic” voice of the subcontinent and exported back to a fawning welcome by India’s anglophone elite. Nor is Bhagat’s phenomenal success (with six novels shifting 7 million copies) due to foreign sales and profile – of which he has very little. It’s more to do with his intimacy with lower-born Indians, whose restricted hopes, humdrum work, romantic dramas, family tensions and sense of humour he has shared and sympathises with.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/24/chetan-bhagat-interview-bollywood-favourite-author-india

The article also notes that his work has been described as “Hornby-lite”, a reference to Nick Hornby, another writer I enjoy whose work, along with Mike Gayle, has been pejoratively described as lad-lit. A term used as a comparison to “chick-lit”.

Lad Lit is a fictional genre of male-authored novels about young men and their emotional and personal lives, often characterized by a confessional and humorous writing style. The term combines the word “lad,” which refers to a boy or young man and “lit,” which is short for “literature.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lad%E2%80%93lit

 

 

 

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Seeing Other People, by Mike Gayle

Seeing-Other-People-jacketAfter a very dry reading year, I started 2015 with an author who has never failed me in the past: Mike Gayle. And true to form, I found Seeing Other People very hard to put down and I read it over one weekend.

It was the kind of book I needed to read, to rid myself of any idea that my interest in reading was dying, after managing to finish only 25 books last year, the lowest since I started keeping a tally at the end of 2009.

Joe Clarke is a man very much in love with his wife and children so the last thing he’d want to do is jeopardise his marriage. So why does he wake to find himself in bed with the new office intern with no memory of how he got there? And why does his ex-girlfriend keep turning up – considering he’d very recently attended her funeral? What affect will all of this have on his marriage?

Turning Forty, Mike Gayle

turning 40

On the surface Mike Gayle’s Turning Forty has nothing in common with the Stephen King book I wrote about in my previous post. But to me, both bring up the idea of alternative time lines.

In King’s novel the protagonist travels back in time and creates alternative future outcomes by changing what happens to individuals in the past.

With Gayle’s books I always find myself facing the alternative lives I could have lived, if only I had made one or two different choices when I had the opportunity.

Gayle’s characters don’t face the extreme experiences of King’s protagonists. They are more or less everyday people going through things that aren’t uncommon, struggling with career and relationships.  In part I envy his characters and their long-standing friendships, but I don’t envy the complications that arise when those friendships are tested and sometimes break.

Turning Forty is a sequel to Gayle’s earlier book Turning Thirty. I read the earlier book a few years ago but couldn’t recall the characters or their younger lives. Having read all of Gayle’s books I find it hard to remember who belongs to which story.

Each of his books follows a similar path through part of the life of a main character who spends a lot of time with friends of both genders, usually struggling to find love, and trying to determine where the line between love and friendship should be drawn. While the paths may be similar, the destinations can be significantly different and the reader can never be too sure of where the characters will find themselves at the end of each book.

The similarities in his stories give me the impression that Gayle is sharing insights into separate parts and different inhabitants of a single community. And it seems to be a community he knows well. His non-fiction book The To Do List shows how his own life has similarities to the lives of the characters in his fiction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been close to having the multiple friendships depicted by Gayle. Maybe those relationships only come through growing up alongside others through childhood and school years, a period of life before adulthood teaches us to be more guarded.  I’ve probably had too many relocations and associated disruptions to develop and maintain the kind of friendships that Gayle depicts. If only I’d chosen a less mobile course I might have experienced friendships differently.

(for more that I’ve written about Mike Gayle see here: http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2010/12/mike-gayle-and-friends.html )

The Stag and Hen Weekend by Mike Gayle

The downside of loving a book is finding a follow up that won’t disappoint. Facing this problem after finishing The Art Lover, I decided to play “safe”. While I knew the “literary” quality wouldn’t compare, I have always enjoyed Mike Gayle’s books so I chose his The Stag and Hen Weekend.

It’s a book I’ve had for several months but had hesitated to read, but why the hesitation?

It was caused by the structure of the book. It tells the stories of soon-to-be-weds Phil and Helen and their respective pre-wedding party weekends. The reader is given the choice of which of these separate accounts to read first.

 stagandhenThey are printed back to back, Helen’s story has a pink cover, Phil’s blue. When one has been finished the reader turns the book around and reads the other. But which to start first? The choice makes a real difference; the reading of the first part will affect how we’ll perceive events in the other. It’s a choice that can only be made once – we can never go back to see how things could have seemed different if we’d chosen the other starting point.

Eventually my choice was made for the most trivial and non-literary of reasons. The pink side had a small barcode – something that usually appears on the back of the book, so I chose to start with Phil’s story (the blue cover).

I’ve written about Gayle’s books before on my original blog site*. They all involve everyday relationships between close friends and the effects of romantic complications. This book starts eight years into the relationship of Phil and Helen, one week before their planned wedding.

Phil is being taken away by his friends to Amsterdam for a “stag weekend”. Helen’s friends are taking her to a “hen’s weekend” at a luxury hotel and spa in the Derbyshire Peak District. Complications arise when the past starts to disrupt both of their weekend celebrations and make them question their plans for the future.

The beginning of the Phil’s story disappointed me. I found the characters and their interaction unconvincing. Maybe the relationship between Phil and his friends (all approaching 40 but acting like mid-teenagers) was too different to my personal experience. Or maybe the opening scenes were too cluttered with characters – necessary considering the circumstances (several friends celebrating), but difficult to present effectively if every one of them is given an active voice: something Gayle tried to do.

For me this side of the story didn’t really pick up until the introduction of an “enigma” related to the past when Phil and his friends meet a vaguely familiar woman at a night club. From this point I started to see some of the qualities I’d appreciated in Gayle’s other books. He can write convincing and compelling one on one interaction between men and women.

I found Helen’s story was written more evenly, without the stylistic highs and lows of Phil’s half of the book. But I felt her story lacked the mild intrigue of Phil’s story. I’d already been made aware of significant things via Phil (although partially misrepresented by Phil and his companions’ wrong conclusions).

Quite early into the book I started to wonder about the ending(s). How could each part have a satisfactory ending and still leave enough questions to be resolved at the end of the other? I couldn’t see there being a nice neat conclusion and I wasn’t wrong – but I was surprised at how effectively the ending was handled.

For me it was the most thought provoking part of the book.

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* http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2010/12/mike-gayle-and-friends.html