One of the chief pleasures of reading a book of short stories by a skilled writer is the way we readers are able to parachute invisibly into someone else’s world, and then vanish the moment the characters’ lives threaten to become boring or unbearable. That’s exactly the strategy Akhil Sharma employs in his engaging new collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight.
The protagonists in each story are Indian, although many of them are living, or have lived, in the United States. Sharma has a good deal to say about the inevitable clashes of the two cultures — he’s at least as harsh on traditional Indian values as he is on those of Americans — but his real subject is the difficulty of creating and maintaining a successful marriage.
In “If You Sing Like That for Me,” for instance — the longest and possibly the most depressing story in the book — the narrator, a long-married wife, begins: “Late one June afternoon, seven months after my wedding, I woke from a short, deep sleep, in love with my husband.” Unfortunately, the narrator’s love “would last only a few hours,” and she would never feel the same about her husband again. To have that fact foregrounded at the start of the story makes her detailed description of the prelude to and first months of her arranged marriage all the more painful.
Other stories have a similarly pessimistic view of lifetime love. “Cosmopolitan” follows the exploits of a middle-aged Indian man whose wife has left him, as he negotiates the treacheries of Western dating while trying to woo the divorced American woman down the street. In “The Well,” a much younger Indian man, raised in New Jersey but deeply marked by his parents’ marriage, also cannot surmount the challenges of trying to convince a non-Indian woman to become his wife.
Still, while Sharma again and again shows us how romance goes sour, the book’s title isn’t entirely ironic. Even as they fail to achieve their dreams, the characters in Sharma’s stories experience moments of humor, satisfaction, and, yes, even adventure and delight.