Adulting shouldn't be this hard. Especially in your thirties. Having been pressured by her tight-knit community to get married at a young age to her first serious boyfriend, Anu Desai is now on her own again and feels like she is starting from the beginning.
But Anu doesn't have time to start over. Telling her parents that she was separating from her husband was the hardest thing she's ever done—and she's still dealing with the fallout. She has her young daughter to support and when she invests all of her savings into running her own yoga studio, the feelings of irresponsibility send Anu reeling. She'll be forced to look inside herself to learn what she truly wants.
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Anu Desai tied her hair back with the elastic around her wrist, and broke into a jog as she turned into the back alley. She hadn’t taken this path in more than ten years, yet it looked exactly the same. A near-rotting wood fence still ran the length of the alley, vines draped over the planks intermittently. The gravel crunched conspicuously beneath her sneakers, and she slowed her pace as she made a right onto another backstreet. After the third garbage bin, she traced her hand along the wood, three large paces past the fire hydrant, and found the latch. Opening the gate just a sliver, she slipped through and closed it noiselessly. She glanced up at Mrs. Jenkins’ bedroom window next door—if it was Mrs. Jenkins who still lived there. The lights were out, and so Anu tiptoed toward the shed.
She stuck her back foot on the fence to push herself up the wall, and was surprised by how easy the familiar motions felt. She stepped fully onto the fence and then leaned against the outer wall of the house. From there, it was just one step onto the rain gutter—she tested it first, to make sure it was still sturdy—and then another onto the windowsill.
As always, the window was open just a hair. It was one of the best parts about living in Vancouver. Even if it was chilly outside, like today, nothing beat that fresh Pacific northwest air. Anu pressed her face close in towards the window as she found her footing, and her stomach growled when the smell of deep-fried pakoras hit her. While Anu’s own mother had experimented with non-Indian food, going so far as to serve the family pasta and pad thai on occasion, her soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law, Priya Desai, had stuck to her roots. The only stains on her kitchen counter were from turmeric, and if the spice or vegetable wasn’t available at her local Punjabi grocery store—well, Priya had probably never tried it.
Anu settled her butt down, and then gently tapped her fingers against the glass until it opened. Back first, she pushed through—but where there used to be a bench, there was nothing but air, and she toppled over into a large crash onto the floor.
The light switched on while she was sprawled on the ground, and Anu tried to sit up in a blur, ignoring the pulsing sensation in her left ankle.
“Mother Fiona that hurt.”
She felt hands on either side of her pulling her up, then spotted two dark brown feet sticking out from beneath the legs of khaki trousers.
“Why didn’t you use the front door?”
The room stopped spinning. Anu moved to massage her ankle and winced at the pain.
“Here, let me take a look—”
“That doesn’t look good.” Neil Desai rolled up the hem of her jeans and inspected her ankle, squatting down in front of her. This was the most physical contact they’d had in months, nearly a year, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” she said quickly to break the silence. “Are there any doctors downstairs?”
He snorted. “Don’t need one. I took a first aid class, remember?”
“In two thousand seven.”
“But that’s basically the same thing as medical school.”
He grinned again, and she winced. But this time it wasn’t from the pain.
She pulled her leg away from him and stepped gingerly onto the floor. After testing out her weight, she stood up straight with Neil’s help.
Neil’s bedroom used to have baby blue walls and ugly wicker furniture—not that Priya had ever allowed Anu to go upstairs to his room when they were dating. Now it was their daughter, Kanika’s, room, with every Disney figurine, plush toy, or poster imaginable living within its blush pink walls. Her Moana backpack and matching suitcase were open on the floor, clothes and books spilling out. Neil crouched down and started tucking everything neatly away.
“Do you want any help?” Anu asked.
He shook his head, and so she walked toward the far window, pressed her head against the glass.
Anu should have waited to come over until the party had concluded, or offered for Kanika to sleep there an extra night. The front lawn was crowded with the aunties and uncles of her community, dressed up in a rainbow of red, saffron, and gold in tribute to Diwali. Some had firecrackers, candles, or sparklers—others watched the festivities from the sidelines. Anu didn’t have the energy to face them today, although she knew she would have to on the way out. She couldn’t climb out of Neil’s bedroom window with a five-year-old in tow.
She spotted Priya climbing up the porch stairs, slowly, leaning her weight onto the handrail, and then Kanika darting past her in the opposite direction, waving two long sparklers. Anu inhaled sharply. Someone had dressed her in a neon pink lengha so long she could trip over it. And why hadn’t anyone put a coat on her? Couldn’t they feel the biting October wind?
“I know she’s not wearing a coat,” Neil said behind her. “She refused. She’s getting more stubborn every day.”
“Just like you.”
“I was going to say, just like you.”
Anu smiled out the window, watching her daughter prance around the lawn, basking in the attention of being the only child at the party. “Why aren’t you down there?”
“There was a minor fire-related emergency.”
She spun around to face him. Tucking Kanika’s favorite plush walrus into the backpack, he gestured to his right forearm, at a bald patch the size of a baseball.
“Prabha Uncle brought firecrackers, and I got caught in the cross fire when he tried to light one in the kitchen sink.”
“He tried to light it inside the house?” Anu laughed. “They make these things childproof. Who knew it needed to be uncle proof.”
She went to reach for the bald patch but caught herself just in time. Instead, she planted her hands firmly on her hips.
“It’s just hair,” he said quietly. “It’ll grow back.”
She nodded, even though she didn’t agree. Not everything came back.
Anu sat down on the foot of the bed, and she wondered if it was the same twin bed Neil had slept in until they got married. She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. For the first time since he had moved out, they were back on good terms. They were civil, and sometimes on Saturdays during the pickups and drop-offs—on nights like these—they even laughed together.
But she knew Neil, and now everything was about to change.
She opened her eyes. He was examining her more closely as he closed up the backpack with its palm tree zipper.
“Everything OK, Anush?”
She pressed her lips together, cringing at the sound of his nickname for her; the way the tone dropped off at the elongated oo sound. One upon a time it had been romantic.
“Ryan and I . . . .” She caught his eye, and there was no need to say more.
He dropped the backpack to the floor, rubbed his hands through his hair.
She sat forward on the bed. “Are you OK?”
He didn’t reply. She could hear him breathing over the sounds of voices downstairs, chattering filling up the house.
“I haven’t told Kanika. She hasn’t even met him yet—”
“You . . . you climb in here like nothing has changed . . . and just spring this on me.” Neil was pacing now, and his voice was on the rise. He was on the cusp of snapping. That temper of his, the one that reared its petty, unruly self so rarely, was on its way up and out. “She hasn’t met him yet? Is it serious?”
“Neil, lower your voice.” She stood up from the bed, keeping the weight on her right foot. “It’s only been a few months, I swear. I didn’t want you to find out from anyone else.”
“So everyone knows you’re with him now? Is that it?”
“Neil, please calm dow—”
“Beta.” A sharp voice from the doorway. “Hush.” Her mother-in-law, Priya, was standing at the entrance of the room, her sari a sheath of orange tie-dye. “We have guests.” She gave them both a stern look. “What is this nonsense?” She paused, breathing hard. “I thought fighting time was over.”
Anu relaxed her hands, only then realizing they were clenched. “Neil and I were discussing—”
“How Anu’s got herself a new boyfriend.”
Anu’s stomach dropped. He was telling on her to his mother?
“Already? Is it that white man?”
“So what if he’s white, Auntie?”
Priya’s cheeks flushed, and immediately Anu felt regret. She was not usually so vocal with her opinions. As Neil’s girlfriend, she’d tried to ignore Priya’s constant demands, her placations and opinions, the way she made and unmade everything they did, like a bed, like a chore. When they got married, she couldn’t ignore them; rather, she obeyed them. Now she didn’t have to, but she still wasn’t used to the idea that she was allowed to do and say as she pleased. In their culture, you couldn’t be honest with elders without disrespecting them.
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” she said finally, sincerely. She met Priya’s gaze. “I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“You mean every word, dear. Except the promises you made to my son.”
Anu took a deep breath as she tried to remain calm. She was used to the guilt; it was the pain she was still coming to grips with. She chanced a look at Neil. His arms crossed, he was staring out the back window that she’d first climbed through twelve years earlier.
Why couldn’t she reach out to him, press her hand against his chest, and make him understand that this was for the best?
He turned around and caught her eye. Staring at her like a stranger, he opened his mouth as if to say something, and then he closed it.
Maybe because, deep down, he knew there was nothing left to say. Not a scrap left to tussle over or work through. This was all that was left. And now wouldn’t it be easier to play the cold estranged wife? The one who only eight months into their separation was starting to fall for another man; who would be ready for a divorce when the one-year separation mark rolled around and she was legally entitled to ask for it.
The one who didn’t look back.
Swallowing hard, Anu walked out the door and down the stairs, ignoring the throbbing sensation in her ankle. The kitchen and the living room were full of people, and she smiled and nodded at everyone as they greeted her. There was a thundering on the stairs behind her.
“Anu, you forgot her bags,” she heard Neil say.
“Thanks,” Anu mumbled.
Kanika ran halfway up the stairs to greet her, squeezing her around the middle. Anu fought the urge to cry and widened her eyes so the tears didn’t spill. She bent down to kiss Kanika and, following her down the stairs, nodded intently at what her beautiful daughter was saying.
But Anu coudln’t hear the words. She could only watch Kanika’s tiny, full lips move. Neil’s lips.
The way her eyes widened and contracted in animation, the same way Neil’s did when he was excited or joyful—a look Anu would probably never witness for herself again.
Coming and going. Going and coming. These were the routines of Anu’s life now, except it still didn’t feel like her own.
Anu turned toward the voice. Without meeting her eye, Priya handed her a heavy plastic bag.
“It’s OK, Auntie. I already ate.”
Priya didn’t reply as she'disappeared'into the kitchen.
“Thank you,” Anu called after her, but she didn’t think Priya could hear her over Kanika’s whines and pleas to the entire room as Neil tried to dress her in a coat. She didn’t want to leave the party yet, she cried. Why didn’t Mommy want to stay? Why didn’t Mommy ever want to have fun?
Anu tried not to wonder this herself, but when you married the first man you ever kissed, these weren’t the questions you were used to asking yourself. Lately, she was realizing she never stopped to ask herself anything, let alone find the answer. Why had she lived her life like it wasn’t her own? Why had she followed the wind without wondering where it was blowing, or why?
Anu took a deep breath—counted in for two, counted out for two—just like her mother had taught her. Clutching the bags in one hand, she gave Kanika her most serious look. “Please, baby. It’s time to go.”
Kanika pouted—that way she did often, the way she knew worked on everyone. “Can Daddy come, too?”
Every time, it ripped. Just a little bit more.
“Daddy will walk us to the car.”
Reading Group Guide
Readers Guide for GROWN-UP POSE
1. As much as Anu loves Neil, she chooses to separate from him rather than try to keep working on their marriage. What reasons led her to make this decision? Do you think she resented him, or resented the traditional roles each of them had taken on in the marriage?
2. Anu often uses labels such as “good Indian girl” or “good wife and mother”—and she feels the weight of the expectations that go along with those characterizations. Do you think such labels are ever black and white? How much did you think the burden Anu was feeling came from expectations she placed on herself?
3. Anu and Jenny lament over the fact that their alumni magazine, and society in general, tends to celebrate milestones such as marriage and children, and fails to give recognition to personal accomplishments. Do you agree with their viewpoint? In what ways does Anu’s viewpoint influence her decisions?
4. Initially, Anu believes she is more grown up than her best friends because she is, among other things, a mother and wife, although she ultimately comes to realize she’s wrong. What do you think it means to be “a grown-up” in today’s society? Is there a difference between acting like a grown-up and truly being grown up?
5. Comparing her own family to Monica’s and Priya’s friend Auntie Jayani, Anu talks about how there is a spectrum of Indian families in terms of how traditional they are. Do you see this kind of spectrum in your own community? How do you think social mores change over time?
6. Do you think Anu’s decision to take over Mags’s studio was impulsive? Irresponsible? Are there ways in which following her dream to run a yoga helped Anu grow as a person?
7. Anu partially justifies her decision to leave for London by telling Monica that if she doesn’t go, she doesn’t think her daughter will ever be able to think of her as a role model. What does Anu mean by that, and did you agree with her reasoning?
8. Anu has a close relationship with both her parents, but at the same time, she’s felt that she needed to hide a lot about who she is and what she wants in order to meet their expectations. How has her relationship with both Lakshmi and Kunal evolved? And why do you think Anu was never able to be honest with them until their confrontation in London?
9. Is Anu’s jealousy of Neil’s love interests reasonable, considering that she was the one who asked for the separation and first started dating other people?
10. Anu feels responsible for Imogen’s hospitalization, and thinks she should have done more, even though she tried to respect Imogen’s decision to deal with her depression on her own terms. Do you think Anu did enough as a friend? What further action could or should Anu have taken?
11. Toward the end of the novel, when Anu and Neil are discussing their marriage, Neil says, “We started a family so young and had to grow up so quickly, sometimes I think we didn’t have time to grow up at all.” Did you agree or disagree with his statement?
12. In Anu’s own words, she “goes off the rails” for a while in a bid to find her own sense of self and independence, much like an adolescent. By the end of the novel, do you think Anu was ultimately able to “grow up”? What do you think she struggled with the most in her bid to become a grown-up?