(The one benefit of a recent roommate’s departure, even though I miss her and her troublemaking cat: she cleaned; I found piles of unread books. The benefit of having recently canceled the internet in my home: I read said books instead of blogs.)
At first I didn’t get what the reviewers were so excited about. The setting–World War II-era India–was interesting, but some of the dialogue felt forced, and it seemed like Venkatraman was setting us up for a fairly obvious morality play.
Then she introduced the love interest. Then I got it.*
(SPOILER ALERT for what follows.)
The best thing about CLIMBING THE STAIRS is that it could so easily have fallen into Sarah Dessen Syndrome–the label I stole from YA Lit and Death for when the romance is built on the preternaturally perfect and mature teenage boy solving the heroine’s previously intractable problems with his unnatural sensitivity and emotional insight, ’cause we all know that’s how high school relationships work–but it chooses to go somewhere totally else.
Venkatraman has Raman, the boy, repeatedly fail to understand why the protagonist Vidya is suffocating under the restrictions of her freedom, why she lives in terror of marriage and being subject to a husband’s control. And every time he doesn’t get it, Vidya gets angry and calls him on it. And he’s bewildered, and then he thinks about it, and then he learns.
And yeah, I fell in love with him too.
And also, the main reconciliation scene? Top-notch. This is what teen romance is for.
* Incidentally: I said this line spontaneously yesterday while recounting to friends at the bus stop–I live in a college town; you run into people you know at the bus stop; it’s weird–what I’d read the night before, and we started speculating about whether you could liven up seminars by having a point in each class where you say, “And now let me introduce the love interest.”
Like, are the “new cultural approaches” to the sociology of poverty the Romeo to the study of institutionalized racism’s Juliet, and maybe those crazy kids would be able to make it work if only their families would quit carrying on an old war that no one even remembers what it’s about anymore, but people are going to die, ok, because Romeo can’t keep it in his pants and thinks he’s meant to be with every next girl, and Juliet’s a little desperate and starved of guys like Romeo’s attention, but maybe they’d be able to look back on it later and laugh about that youthful romance that they both learned something from if only her parents would stop flipping out every time Romeo turns up on the balcony? Or are they actually the little punk-ass rebel at school, who seems all subversive and so you cut school with him and think everything he says is, like, so deep, and then it turns out he stole all those cheap lines from a Vincent Gallo movie and he’s been sleeping with your sworn enemy on the side, and your grandma’s all, “I told you so,” only now your grandma’s named Steve Steinberg? Like that. I would offer extra credit to any student who wrote a convincing romantic short story about our class material, but I’d dock them points if the ending were contrived, or, worse, if it didn’t really sell the romance. ‘Cause, you know, I have pretty exacting standards and I expect students to rise to them.
This is a favorite pasttime among several of my grad student friends: come up with the tics we plan to cultivate as faculty to provide our students with endless amusement, speculation, and class bingo/drinking games. If I ever learn that one of the bizarre faculty behaviors we go into hysterics over is similarly affected, that professor will have my undying admiration. But the truth is, I probably don’t need to cultivate anything. We play this game because from our perspective, hilariously crazy behaviors are something we’d have to artificially decide to engage in. But it seems inevitable that just letting our own personalities shine through will provide fodder enough for student scorn.