The Unexpected Son
by Shobhan Bantwal
(Kensington, $15)  ISBN 978-0758232038
***
The Unexpected Son poses a difficult question: how would a woman react when she finds that she has a thirty-year-old son, whom she was told died at birth many years before?  Vinita Patil, New Jersey wife and mother, finds herself in this position as the story opens.  She receives an anonymous letter, informing her that her baby boy was not stillborn, but is alive in India and fighting leukemia.

Vinita was an average-looking college student who fell for the charms of Som Kori, a wealthy playboy. Kori abandoned her when their affair resulted in a pregnancy and Vinita refused to have an abortion. The shame to Vinita’s family was enormous; not only was Vinita no longer a virgin, she was now virtually unmarriageable. Vinita was sent to Bombay to live with her brother, where she contracted pneumonia close to her delivery date. Desperately ill, the baby was delivered by Caesarean and Vinita never knew he survived. Her family told her the baby had been cremated; in reality, he was placed with a childless couple in an effort to prevent a scandal.

Vinita eventually married a divorced Indian engineer who held a good job in America. The family’s tale – that Vinita was a cancer survivor – seemed like the correct story to tell him rather than face her family’s contempt as an unmarried woman. Over the past twenty-five years, Vinita bore a daughter and grew to love her husband very much. Now the lie is coming back to haunt her.

Vinita decides she must return to India to meet her son and see if she can be a bone marrow donor for him. Her husband, resentful, withdraws from her. Her grown daughter is shocked, but more encouraging. Her newfound son, Rohit, a college professor, is hostile. And her family argues that she doesn’t need to stir up trouble. Vinita is swimming against the current if she hopes to connect with the son she never knew.

The Unexpected Son offers an interesting look into the conservative culture of an Indian middle-class family. Vinita, carried away by her youthful emotions, centers the story and is nearly the only sympathetic character. Som Kori is a dirtbag from the get-go; Vinita’s family are self-serving and rigid; her brother comes across as a pompous bully, and Vinita’s husband prefers to feel much abused and put-upon rather than support his wife.  He descends into a fit of the sulks, refusing to answer Vinita’s e-mails and phone calls. This kind of martyr behavior on the part of a sixty-year-old man just didn’t fly; and when Vinita expresses her concern that he might ask for a divorce, it was all I could do not to roll my eyes. As for Rohit, he also starts out as a sullen brat, for all that he’s 30 years old, and it takes a while before he is even willing to listen to Vinita and hear her story.

Vinita, a product of her culture, spends most of the book acquiescing to everyone else. It would be easy to become exasperated with her, but hers is more of a passive resistance; once back in India, she falls into the old pattern of letting her brother and the rest of her family try to bully her into doing what they want. In the end, she achieves her aim by simply not doing what everyone expects of her, rather than tell them off.  It works, but readers may long for that one explosion of anger that Vinita carries inside of her and never lets loose.

Bantwal includes a subplot involving Som Kori and Rohit’s adoptive father, who are on opposite sides of a territorial conflict that descends into violence. This creates a couple of strategic events to move the story forward.

The Unexpected Son offers an interesting look into the workings of an Indian-American family. It’s not a romance, but more of a work of contemporary fiction. Vinita and her struggles are memorable but the soap-opera story structure may leave readers feeling unsatisfied. 

--Cathy Sova


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