THINGS MY MOTHER TOLD ME
By Tanya Atapattu
Sphere/Paperback/310 pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya/
When 29-year-old Anjali Chandana finds that her long-term boyfriend Jack has been having an affair with a burlesque dancer, she kicks him out and ends the relationship.
But desperate to get over Jack, she lurches from fling to fling with a parade of men who are identified only by descriptive monikers: the Architect, the Saxophonist, the Sailor and so on.
At the same time, she begins to unburden herself to her Sri Lankan mother from whom she has distanced herself over the years.
As true to life as this portrayal may be, the reader cannot help but feel frustrated with the slow pace at which Anjali's soul-searching progresses.
The novel's first few chapters are particularly tedious as Anjali makes a series of bad relationship decisions, each one ending with nothing to show for it.
Fortunately, she is not simply another weepy chick-lit protagonist. Despite her misery, Anjali's internal monologue is peppered with a generous dose of self-deprecating humour that makes it an entertaining read.
For example, her dead father is always encouraging in her imagined conversations with him, even though she has no memories of what he was like.
"If you're going to talk to a dead person, they may as well be supportive," she tells herself.
More satisfying - although predictable - is Anjali's eventual reconciliation with her distant family. This consists of her mother and sister Shanthi, whose troubled past is slowly revealed as the novel progresses.
"I don't want to make my mum out to be just another caricature," Anjali cautions the reader. "But sometimes she can make it really difficult."
This warning comes across as an excuse for lazy characterisation, for her mother is portrayed as the stereotypical Asian matriarch to the hilt.
She is interfering, critical, melodramatic and stubbornly traditional - but is ultimately well-meaning and has her daughters' best interests at heart.
Things My Mother Told Me is fundamentally a heart-warming tale about family and how the most obvious things about one's loved ones hide in plain sight.
If you like this, read: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf Doubleday, 2009, $16.51, Books Kinokuniya), a short-story collection revolving around Bengali-American characters and how they make sense of their cultural heritage.