Climbing the Stairs
Author: Padma Venkatraman
Genre: Young Adult
Subgenre: Historical Fiction; Military; Lit & Fiction
Book received by: Purchased at writer’s conference
Life for fifteen year-old Vidya holds tremendous promise. Despite living in British-occupied India during the 1940s with a rigid caste system in place, she aspires to attend college, a goal her father supports. When tragedy forces her family to move in with extended relatives who live according to more traditional rules with women in subservient roles and destined only for marriage, the future of which she dreamed is in jeopardy. Challenges await her in adapting to this new life, and in achieving her dreams without being cast out or causing irreparable harm to those she loves.
Busy moms (and dads), this book offers a window into a time and world about which I have not seen many books, much less one from the perspective of a teenager. I have a new love for YA historical fiction novels that started with reading All the Light We Cannot See. Reading Climbing the Stairs introduced me to an era with which I am already familiar, but a land and set of circumstances that were entirely foreign, in much the same was as Between Shades of Gray. The strengths of Climbing the Stairs are many, from the complexities of the social and political climates to the intricacies of life for a young Indian woman in the 1940s and the relationships of the main character, Vidya.
The overarching plot has Vidya embattled with the political and societal expectations of her. Layered over this are the family tragedy that throws her life into upheaval and the splintering of her immediate family. She’s forced to grapple with unexpected limitations on her future prospects imposed after her family moves into a more traditional household, the change in lifestyle from the move and natural change to relationships that follows such shifts in one’s life. Things never anticipated in her life like arranged marriage, segregation of her family within the household and strict rules for daily life become challenges of her every day. How she deals with these endeared her to me, in particular when she challenged the status quo while trying to remain respectful.
There are a host of characters to keep track of in Climbing the Stairs, many of which are introduced in a natural fashion as the story unfolds. By the time Vidya and her family move into the extended family home there are only a few more to add. That being said, for the first few events in which the entire family is together, it’s a bit of a challenge to keep everyone straight…much as it might have been in real life! The supporting characters seem to have the most consistent natures and voices about them, which makes keeping everyone straight much easier. Vidya’s relationships with the other characters were well-written and for the most part believable. She has natural hot-and-cold interactions with her brother and mother, although the interactions with her father vacillated and I struggled some to reconcile how she treated and spoke about him from one chapter to the next. Her relationship with Raman starts off organically and pulled me deeper into the book as I rooted for them. It ends up feeling unnatural after Vidya treats him terribly and behaves in a particularly bratty manner, which felt incongruous with the development of her character into the young woman capable of serious negotiations she has been.
Overall the book flows well. There’s a fair amount of scene-setting, some of which helps paint a picture of life in another era and a country where I have never been. At a few points the descriptions seemed a bit heavy-handed, detracting from the action, but at times of greatest tension, the prose was much tighter and kept me better engaged. One of the points I struggled with the most was Vidya’s voice. She vacillated from a believably level-headed teen to one suffering from significant angst to a less-believable and almost preachy adult. The latter passages were probably the most distracting, as they read more like a lecture and leap years ahead in terms of life expectations than natural dialogue or thoughts of a sixteen year-old in that era. The books spends a great deal of time in a short frame (months), then seems to rocket forward, both in Vidya’s maturity and in her life. It then almost rushes into a happily-ever-after mode when it flashes forward: Relationships are mended and the family comes out of the war fairly unscathed, and in some ways better off. I expected an end that was less neat, had some frayed or loose ends and more open-endedness for the future.
Big Picture: Vidya’s story is interesting, relevant and authentic. The experience of growing up in 1940s India is one that I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this book. There are elements of the book that were distracting while reading, but I walked away from it with a newfound appreciation for the freedoms I (and my children) enjoy. I enjoyed the natural way that the holidays, traditions and beliefs of Hinduism and a Brahmin family were woven into the story, as they would have been a part of every day life for the characters in the book. Solitary spoiler: She climbs the stairs LONG before I expected she would! The story is powerful, and certainly offered me perspective into a life and set of circumstances that were foreign to me. It’s one that I would recommend, in particular for mothers and daughters, for reflection on how different life could have been, for all of us.
Have you read Climbing the Stairs or another YA historical fiction? I’m always on the lookout for new books to add to the “to-read-and-review” shelf, especially by independently- or newly-published authors. If you have any to recommend, please share in the comments and many thanks!
Featured image: Cover photographs © 2009 Barbara Cole / Cover design by Natalie C. Sousa.