First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover by Mitali Perkins. Dutton Children’s Books: New York. June 2007. Hardcover. 277 pages. $16.99.
Kavita Daswani takes on the life of a desi teenager in her first Young Adult (YA) novel,Indie Girl. Daswani, who has colorfully portrayed the lives of desi protagonists with more mature themes and cosmopolitan settings in her adult novels, has actually done a much better job in this coming-of-age story.
Fifteen-year-old Indira Konkipuddi lives for fashion and has been consistent in her desire to join the fashion world for as long as she can remember. Her India-born parents, a physician father and understanding but traditional mother, attempt to talk her out of what seems to them to be “just a phase.”
Having been mildly entertained by a few of Daswani’s adult novels, I was eminently impressed by her treatment of the angst of a fifteen-year-old girl and her thwarted desires, which do not at all relate to romance but rather to her own self-actualization. Life isn’t easy for Indira, who christens herself “Indie,” but she is a girl with, as they say, a “good head on her shoulders.” It is probably one of the reasons that this protagonist is so incredibly likeable: she wants something, desperately, but doesn’t feel the need to disrespect everyone around her to get it. Here is a character that is realistic about her own limitations as a person and has parents who, while supporting and protecting their daughter, do allow her to make her own mistakes.
When Indie has the chance to apply to be Aaralyn Taylor’s summer intern atCelebrity Style magazine, she does so with an all-encompassing passion that tips her self-confidence precariously low. While waiting for her opportunity to work at the magazine, Indie jumps at the chance to baby-sit the icy Taylor’s young son Kyle; this results in her being treated with an astonishing callousness and takes her no closer to her career goals. Daswani builds the action in a slow but satisfying way and, thankfully, doesn’t provide quick or easy resolutions.
Daswani also presents Indie as having a deeply ingrained respect for traditional Indian culture as well as a healthy need to pursue her own version of the American dream. Laudable, too, is the fact that while so much Young Adult fiction has a razor’s edge when it comes to parent-child conflicts, Daswani shows an interesting restraint and imbues both Indie and her parents with a vibrant love and respect for one another even when they do not agree. Indie is able to argue with her parents from a position that they respond to well: one of intelligence and respect.
Mitali Perkins’s First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover features a teen protagonist, Sameera “Sparrow” Righton, who is not nearly as likeable as Daswani’s Indie. Sameera Righton is adopted from a Pakistani village that her parents had been visiting. This would not seem to be such a momentous happening, except that Sameera’s father is running for President of the United States. With an anticipated cut-throat campaign in the works, Sameera must strive to be her authentic self, the Pakistani daughter of American parents, and not a liability to her father’s campaign.
The novel is complete with all manner of stereotypes that frankly strained the plausibility of the entire story. Sameera is not a likeable character: she is snarky, sarcastic, and has so much self-determination and self-confidence that the reader may actually be tempted, at certain points, to root against her! The “I’ll–show-them-a-little-adopted-girl-from-Pakistan–can-do-anything” attitude seems to be aimed more at an American audience than a desi one, since Sameera sets up polarities where it is hard to believe they exist. Heavy use of “hip” teen language and requisite text messaging language in text format become cloying very quickly and hard to read.
Although the potential for depth in these novels might seem to favor the story of an adopted Pakistani girl over that of a girl who just wants a career in fashion, precisely the opposite is true.First Daughter never achieves the level of emotion, maybe because the effort to portray Sameera as “current” leaves her with no depth—no real moments in which she considers her own authenticity aside from simply asserting her ethnic background. One of the limitations of the book is that Sameera reacts to everything from the outside-in, instead of from the inside-out. Even fictional protagonists in YA novels should have moments of angst and self-doubt that propel the story forward, not just external obstacles. Indie Girl has both, which makes it a more readable and enjoyable book.
Both of the novels show that self-determination is needed to make it in the world, no matter who you are. The individual protagonists ethnicities (Indian and Pakistani) are secondary. Neither situation—being thwarted in your attempt to earn a job you desperately want or trying to be your “real” self during your father’s presidential campaign—seems more difficult or fraught because of the characters’ respective ethnic backgrounds. And in the case of Perkins’s book, it all just seems too contrived. Each of these situations would be difficult for any teen to handle. The difference is that Kavita Daswani understands that fact better than Mitali Perkins.
|Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.|