A GOOD INDIAN WIFE: A NOVEL by Anne Cherian. W. W. Norton and Company: May 2008. Hardcover. 320 pages. $23.95

Many works of Indian fiction published in the past seven years have been derivative. Of itself, that is. And yet I was still surprised to discover that A Good Indian Wife, yet another novel about arranged marriage, has found its way into print. I have nothing against arranged marriage, of course, or even arranged marriage novels, but given all the fascinating and wonderful aspects of Indian life, it is hard to imagine that there is a paucity of subject matter. With that in mind, I admit that I was prepared to dislike Cherian’s effort. Instead, Cherian surprises and delights.

Cherian does not simplify the conflict that arranged marriage expectations from traditional parents exert on the American desi. Rather, she sensitively portrays a cultural practice that for many is written on the bone. Watching her characters writhe, suffer, equivocate, and rationalize keeps this narrative unpredictable and fresh.

Neel, a 30-something doctor, practices in the United States and lives the way he wants, supposedly unfettered by the demands of his family. Instead, he has complicated his own life with the beautiful Caroline, a woman he feels is beneath him but who satisfies his sexual needs. When summoned to India on the pretext that his beloved grandfather is close to death, he is pressured into viewing suitable girls for marriage. He relents, agreeing to a few viewings.

Neel meets Leila, and innocently comments to his family that all went well. His parents, in turn, believe this to be the consent needed to cement the deal. Things move rapidly from protest to assent to rage. What Neel does next will not only compromise his own happiness, but that of the innocent Leila, who is puzzled by the stoic and unfriendly attitude Neel exhibits, mistaking it for extreme traditionalism.

If this sounds like the same old same old plot, it isn’t. The layers of complexity that Cherian gives her characters create a suspenseful and thoughtful narrative. Cherian has also resisted any pat answers, or, even more admirably, any implicit judgment either on arranged marriage or the so-called “western tradition” of marriage. Instead, she intelligently focuses the novel on family loyalty, loyalty to s self, and the difficulty of straddling the best and worst of two cultures. While the conclusion may not be what the reader expects, it feels honest and real. Things might as easily have gone the other way. Just like life.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.