The novel, as critic Laura Miller points out in her analysis of Jane Austen’s Emma, is “arts’ closest equivalent to a human being—by nature a concoction of surprises, contradictions, and superfluities” (The Slate Book Review, December 23, 2015). Since Emma, English fiction has made use of something we now call as free indirect style—that is to say, of a third-person narration limited by what the point-of-view character sees, feels and believes. The reader’s excitement therefore lies in temporarily being led astray along with the leading characters, and then being gradually surprised, and then enlightened. Sadly, in all these senses, the novel under review fails the reader.
Like Anita Nair’s earlier novel, Mistress, this story involves a love triangle. Unlike Mistress, where the characterisation and plot are fairly well etched-out, Alphabet Soup for Lovers reveals very little about its central characters—Lena Abraham, her phlegmatic husband KK, and her lover, Shoola Pani, a famous filmstar. The unresolved puzzle for the reader is not why there is adultery, but how such adultery is apparently clinical and angst-free. The lovers have their secret code-names, Ship and Lee, and the narrative is constantly punctuated with queries about each other’s level of happiness. So it would seem that the love affair is not exactly clinical, but charged with emotion—at least in the mind of the author. But who are these shadowy people, and what were their lives like before the affair? Where is their emotional intensity—whether it is ennui or rage or frustration—which leads to the lovers’ passionate discovery of each other? And indeed, why should we care whether they run away together, or they don’t?
We all know that sex is a weighty affair, but it is also absurd and comic-sad. The lovers find their Arcadia, somewhere about one-third of the novel: “They hold each other, unwilling to move, unwilling to even breathe, for to do so would be to step away from Arcadia.” The lovers’ plight seems to infect the narrative, which simply freezes over. Instead of a story of love in the real world, we are treated simply to more and more of the same. Towards the end of the story, the intensity does not lessen; there is no introspection, no sadness, or even lightness of being.
Perhaps the most superfluous character in the novel is the Tamil cook-cum-housekeeper, Komathi, who plods, along with the by-now-exasperated reader, from A (for ‘arisi appalam’) to Z (for ‘zigarthanda’) of the English alphabet. Komathi, who has been urged on by her largely-absent grand-daughter, Selvi, to learn the English alphabet through food items, is bitter with memories of a love affair. As we begin with the letter A, the reader waits in anticipation for stylish plot development and denouement—reminiscent of Nair’s Cut Like Wound. Alas, by the time we reach the letter Z, the plot remains as thin as ever.
Anita Nair is a celebrated author. Celebrity can lead to conformity. It is likely that there is pressure on such authors to offer more of the same—and that can lead to weakening of both plot and characterisation.