Friday, September 21, 2007

On Borrowed WIngs

This is a review for Mother Talk.

On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad, is a coming of age story with a twist.

Adele Pietra grew up during the Great Depression in Stony Creek, CT, a town divided between the haves, or Cottagers, and the have-nots - the quarry workers. Adele's father was an Italian stonecutter and her mother was a former Cottager, disowned by her wealthy parents over her marriage.

Adele has a brother named Charlie who is a year older and their mother's favourite. Their mother pours all of her spare energy into educating Charlie, tutoring him into the night so that he can get into Yale.

When Adele's father and brother are killed in a quarry accident, Adele and her ambitious mother decide that Adele should assume the role of Charlie and take his place at Yale, where he'd been accepted shortly before his death.

Arriving at Yale, Adele not only has to conceal her impoverished background but also her gender. While she grapples with trying to pass as a young man, she also has to deal with her feelings of revulsion over her work-study job with a professor of eugenics. This work brings her into contact with many poor families in New Haven, but specifically centers on one Italian-American family, the DiRisios, whom she tutors and develops a pseudo-familial relationship.

While afraid that these young men might find out her secret, she easily falls into a friendship with several classmates.; Harry, a slight Jewish boy from Manhattan, Phin, a mysterious legacy student and Wick, an irrepressible daredevil who fascinates Adele. She manages to navigate these sometimes-treacherous waters fairly well, but with believable pitfalls and near-misses over the discovery of her identity as a woman.

The characters in this book were all excellently developed and I found myself pulling for Adele from the beginning. She's a very real heroine, flawed, but essentially a good person. She makes mistakes, she shows vulnerability, but she also stands up for people and develops real relationships in spite of the strain she's under about her identity.

As Adele progresses thru Yale, she realizes how much she loves learning just to learn. She spends hours in the Stacks, dipping into books as the fancy strikes but eventually becoming more disciplined in her choices. In her work with the DiRisios, the Italian family, she discovers a real joy in passing that knowledge along to others. It is this that drives her to stay at Yale, over her mother's eventual protests.

This book was great on so many levels. It would make a terrific book group book because there are so many topics to delve into for discussion: race, class and gender identity, to name but three. In fact, I may suggest it for my book group; I enjoyed it that much. It would be fascinating to get other women's opinions on this excellent book.

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