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Review: Gifted, by Nikita Lalwani

(Note: this review is based on an advance reader’s edition provided by the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Per the publisher’s request, I do not quote directly from the uncorrected proof.)

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be math geeks. That is at least part of the message from Gifted, an ambitiously-crafted, slightly maddening, yet eminently readable first novel from Nikita Lalwani.

Sentence by sentence, Lalwani’s writing is so good that the book tugged me along through the story of Rumi Vasi, a smart young woman we see at 10, 14, and 15 as she struggles to build her skills as a nascent math whiz. Her small family — a mother snookered into a permanent relocation to England, her strict and miserable father, and her ebullient, oblivious little brother — are, to paraphrase Tolstoy, unhappy in their own way, with enough feuds and dramatic moments to keep the story pitched high. Rumi herself is the weary, grumpy, anxious antithesis to Eliza Naumann in the charming, quirky Bee Season, and as such provides provides a window into any child whose warped family has pushed her beyond balance in any direction — math, piano, soccer, it doesn’t matter: Rumi is so isolated, so exhausted, and — we learn — so angry, that in the end, when she uncoils, everyone pays the price for her misspent hours and her anaerobic life skills.

However, Gifted leaves us with an ambiguity which I found unwelcome: Lalwani doesn’t reveal enough of Rumi’s gift to allow us to gage her true skills. Is Mahesh, her father, coaching her to reveal truly unusual abilities, or simply torturing a smart, obedient child? There aren’t enough cues; perhaps Lalwani didn’t want to make the book too geeky, but even I, an English major, wanted to see Rumi fuss with equations a bit more openly and often, and surely there were other devices to help us assess Rumi’s real abilities. This opacity ultimately weakens the part of the ending that would benefit from this answer (no spoiler here!), while Rumi’s relationship with Shreene, her mother, isn’t developed enough to claim their role in how the book concludes… or rather, fizzles out. Call me an Aristotelian fetishist, but once I’ve been through the beginning and the middle, I kind of like to get to the end.

Lalwani’s need to underscore the arid inner life of Mahesh comes at the expense of other opportunities. A strange, weak chapter about Mahesh visiting DisneyLand — bias alert: the chapter featured a dream sequence, and I almost never find these well done — marred the narrative arc at exactly the wrong moment, though not perniciously. Otherwise, Lalwani’s storytelling skills and eye for arresting visuals — no doubt honed from her work as a producer of documentaries — pull us through grim familial battles and across continents, with several scenes set in India adding nice visual texture, and a moment on a transcontinental flight that made me tear up in recognition.

Despite the ups and downs, I could not stop reading this book. Rumi is Every Adolescent, from her extreme terror of the social elite at her school to her conviction (occasionally well-placed) that her every pimple and sartorial error is noted with glee by other classmates. Adolescence is, after all, about hyper-awareness, imbalance, separation from one’s parents — and sexual awakening. That last topic is particularly well-done, at once discreet, believable, heartbreaking, and funny, without any of the tediously explicit extremes found in some novels marketed to teens. It is possible, Lalwani reminds us, for a kiss to be at once sublimely erotic and fundamentally disastrous.

A well-drawn adolescent character, such as Rumi, can also stand in for adult experience, and can even represent the writer’s lot in life. To push too hard at something few people understand, often to the point of imbalance; to repeatedly expose your skills to public scrutiny (something Lalwani, with her masters in creative writing, has no doubt repeatedly experienced through writing workshops); to endure the mockery of people who do not understand why you do what you do; to withdraw from normal human behavior for months at a time for a goal that after the fact can seem specious… however conscious or not the parallels, at some point I realized I was feeling sorry for Rumi in part because (having just endured another spate of rejections) I was feeling sorry for my poor awkward pimply writing self.

But never mind. Gifted has other joys. Setting this book in the 1980s was a sharp move that adroitly sidesteps some obvious complications — otherwise, surely Rumi would be messaging her friends or moping on her MySpace page (incidentally, this book has a MySpace page, though I refuse to visit it) and not sitting fully isolated in her room consuming unholy amounts of cumin seed, a strange but interesting obsession. It’s possible the technologically antediluvian setting might disconnect Rumi and her plight from some of the publisher’s target audience. On the other hand, I had a great time revisiting that decade through Lalwani’s writing, and would think that for the right teen, it would be a retro kick.

There is one more problem (very hard to discuss without a spoiler, but I will try). Stepping back from a second reading of Gifted, I felt a smidgen uneasy with a book where a lone girl math geek cannot triumph (and arguably suffers for her gifts). In only one scene late in the book does Lalwani even faintly hint that Rumi’s gender plays any role in the events that follow, nor does Rumi waste time in asking if her gender matters. I remember the 1980s quite well: my women civilian friends were marching forth in their little faux-man-suits to try to crack glass ceilings, while I was a speck of a minority in a formerly all-male military specialty, dressed quite literally in men’s clothing. Setting aside Lalwani’s unintended message, I can’t quite believe that even Rumi and her family, in their miserable self-absorption, would not have stopped to ponder not only her extreme youth but her gender.

My quibbles large and small with Gifted did not stop me from greedily devouring it end-to-end and placing it high on my “recommend” list for adolescents of any age. Whether this is a roman a clef that will pave the way to novels targeted at those of us who are outwardly adult or the first in a series of books intended for teens, I’m glad Lalwani is writing, and I look forward to what comes next.

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