Book review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah – Paula J. Freedman (YA fiction, ***)

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, a charming celebration of multiculturalism, may be short on story, but it’s big on heart.

The title tells you just about all you need to know about the plot: 12-year-old Tara, whose dad’s family is white Jewish and whose mom’s family is south-east Asian Hindu, is having mixed feelings about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah and her cultural identity in general.

This is no clunky lecture on multiculturalism, though. Paula J. Freedman takes on the subject matter with a refreshing breeziness. The musings on what it means to be Indian-Jewish are at once intrinsic to the novel, but also just another part of life for Tara. Our heroine is, above all else, a 12-year-old girl, so wondering where she fits in in the world often takes a backseat to everyday middle school drama.

Freedman does a good job of capturing the typical pre-teen mindset, with a POV that’s inevitably melodramatic and solipsistic, but also likeable and funny. The mini-catastrophes that erupt in Tara’s life are easily recognizable from any pre-teen life: the sinking feeling when your best friend makes a new friend who you hate; panic at ruining a treasured family heirloom. Although there’s also a love triangle (one of the novel’s more perfunctory touches), this is a YA novel that’s more focused on family and friendship – and it’s better for it.

As a character study, I’d be inclined to give Basmati 4 stars, since Tara is such a fun character to spend time with. Unfortunately, the story in Basmati is so slight that it becomes a struggle to keep any sort of forward momentum going. Supplementary story elements, like the aforementioned love triangle and an aborted storyline about remote-controlled race cars, do little to lift the slow pace of the novel.

It’s truly too bad that the plotting of Basmati falls short, because it really is a warm and witty read. What’s more, it’s testament to the fact that there are so many more interesting stories for YA novels to tell outside of the “white, upper-middle-class girl meets a white, upper-middle-class boy” staple of the genre.

3 thoughts on “Book review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah – Paula J. Freedman (YA fiction, ***)

  1. I totally agree “that there are so many more interesting stories for YA novels to tell outside of the “white, upper-middle-class girl meets a white, upper-middle-class boy” staple of the genre.” and I think the success of “Bend it like Beckham” backs us up.

    Certainly as a child and teenager I read, not to find copies of my everyday life, but to escape into new worlds whether it was 1800’s Canada, a fantasy forest, 1960’s America, medieval England or whatever. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) learning about a new world while reading a cracking story.

    Some of favourites along the multi-cultural theme are the Benjamin January murder mystries by Barbara Hambly (a black protagonist in 1800 New Orleans) and the murder mysteries by Qiu Xiaolong set in modern day Shanghai.

  2. Could I interest you in reviewing a whole range of books from South Asia? We are a new publisher (launched June 12, 2013) bringing romantic popular fiction from South Asia to the world. How do I submit books for review to you?

  3. Pingback: Reviews & Mentions | Paula J. Freedman

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