December 2, 2013

Karma Gone Bad. ~ Daisy Whittemore {Book Review}

Why this was a quick-read, and what made it disappointing.

I have been dawdling with this review.

I read the recently published memoir, Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood, and Water Buffalo, by Jenny Feldon, a few months ago, when the air was much warmer and life a little slower. I read it quickly, mostly on the couch on our front porch.

I got sucked right in.

It is that kind of book, the kind where you want to know what is going to happen next, and you are hopeful of what is coming. Even when life is calling, or sleepy lids are threatening, you keep reading.

This is good, right? A sign of a good book. One that pulls you in and pulls you along. Often, yes, this is the case. With Feldon’s book, part of this was because I really wanted to like, perhaps even love, this book. I was craving a good memoir. I was hopeful it would be as funny and thoughtful as Poser and as transformative, compelling and well written as Eat, Pray, Love. I had very high hopes.

As my mom used to say, “comparisons are odious.” It is true. It is important to recognize my set up. For myself and for this memoir about one woman’s year long (mis)adventure in Hyderabad, India, with her husband. I am all about context, and subjectivity. I don’t want to review anyone’s hard work without clarity about what I am bringing into the equation, in truth. So it is critical to know what I was seeking in reading this book, that my expectations were high, that I wanted and probably needed a good, deep, transformative, life-affirming story.

The thing is, I didn’t really get that. At least not at first.

That doesn’t make Karma Gone Bad a bad book. It is not. It is entertaining. It is interesting.

The author relays her experiences as an expatriate in India, and the sharp contrast to what she had hoped and was expecting, with a clear, developed narrative. She too is struggling with expectation. She realizes she “came to India with a whole lifetime of expectations and assumptions about the way the world should work, the way my life was supposed to be.”

In her memoir, Feldon also reveals her humanity candidly, often with not the kindest self-reflection. For fans of her blog, “Karma (continued….),” this book will be familiar and likely a good read. For me, I wanted Jenny to be bigger, more flexible, more interesting, cooler and less shallow. Part of this is the whole point of the book. We get to watch Feldon become more.

I did love her honesty, her willingness to put herself out there for the world to see, to admit that she really can’t hack the life presented to her in India, and not just because of her constant bouts of food poisoning, aching loneliness, and signs of true depression, but because it is not who she is. She unapologetically (at first) wants what she wants: better coffee, better food, better living situations, better social engagements, a trustworthy hairdresser, and so on.

She admits that food she wouldn’t even consider in the states—like Ragu spaghetti sauce found at the quirky import store—is what she seeks over and above the native food. She shows the irony of excitement over a chain coffee shop coming to the airport or a TGIFridays coming soon. She fumbles along, making mistakes and errors in judgment, and repeatedly reveals herself and her wrongs to the world at large. She openly exposes her limits as a partner to her husband, and him to her.

This is brave stuff. Certainly. Except that I found myself not really caring, which surprised me. The problem is that Feldon is not that likable. At least, not as she presents herself. At least for me. She is nearly a cliché of a spoiled American woman.

I haven’t been to India, and I am sure from this story and others, that the experience is intense and overwhelming. But Feldon’s reactions to her experiences there left me feeling empty and feeling sorry for her, for not opening up to more. And this is a big part of the book.

So, when she finally starts to come around and realize the errors in her ways, it was a little too late, at least, for me.

All of this said, there are glimpses throughout the book that Feldon is more than the unhappily displaced American she presents. In particular, there is a family who moved to live on her front porch. She barely talks about them except for small mentions, but when she does, I see someone that I like and want to know more. And I think, why isn’t there more of this story, of the Feldman who is reaching out, offering? Why don’t we get to spend more time with that woman?

Of course, as hoped, toward the end of the book, Feldon becomes bigger. She leaves India, on the verge of divorce from her husband, and returns to recognize the limitations of her prior self and a desire to change. This is a gigantic relief.

But for me, it wasn’t enough. I wanted it to happen sooner. Or rather, for the story, I wanted more time with this girl, not the spoiled one missing her Starbucks. That was far less interesting to me than the Feldon she is hopefully becoming. I wanted more grappling around in the transformative place, not just the tidy elevation to better human.

For me, the book started to have real potential toward the end. Right when the transformation was happening, the book ends in a bit of a fairy tale close. The first two thirds of the book could have been reduced a lot, and we all would have gotten the idea, and then Feldon could have spent more time plunging into what happens afterwards, what happens when you recognize who you are in this life, for real, and you have to get down into the muck of it. That is the book I wanted, more of that, with details and serious self reflection, and less of the details of how dumb the Indian bartender is for not knowing that Smirnoff is vodka.

So, for me, this memoir wasn’t satisfying.

It wasn’t what I wanted, what I expected. For others, especially Feldon’s blog readers, it may be, especially if you don’t set it up as I did. It isn’t a deeply thoughtful story, although there is transformation. Feldon changes. It is a relief. But it is predictable. And we get a lot of her as a spoiled American, and not enough of her when she realizes this.

*Note: I was given this book by the publisher and remain unbiased in my review of the author’s work.

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{Photo: Amazon.com}

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