by Padma Venkatraman
Publisher: Penguin Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: verse novel
Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
Well, it had to happen sometime: I found a verse novel that I dislike. And it's funny because I think I might have liked this book more if it had been written in prose instead. The verse format just didn't work here. Actually, quite a few things didn't work... but the format may have been part of the reason for those as well.
I thought the story sounded interesting, and I hoped that the Indian setting would be beautiful and evocative. Unfortunately, the story was barely there -- this was more of a character study than anything -- and the setting wasn't described well enough for me to really get a sense of the place. There were moments when the Indian setting came alive, but those moments weren't consistent. As a result, large chunks of the book felt like they could have taken place anywhere.
I can overlook a lackluster plot if the characters make up for it. In this case, they didn't. The story is told by a teenager named Veda, who is a bharatanatyam dancer. At the beginning of the story, she is focused on being the best and winning competitions. We really don't know much about her, other than that. So when she loses her right leg in a bus crash (on the way home from her triumphant win at a dance competition, no less) it quickly becomes obvious just what kind of character Veda is... and that is, not much of one. For most of the rest of the book, there is little in the way of character development; instead, Veda becomes defined by her disability. Strangers ask inappropriate questions in the street. Her classmates make stump jokes. Her old dance teacher kicks her out because she can't dance like she used to. And Veda spends a lot of time floating through her life, feeling sorry for herself at times, but often not showing much emotion at all.
One of the biggest problems with the characters in this book was the dialogue. I think the author was trying to make the speech poetic (perhaps to better fit with the verse novel format), but more often than not, it came across as stilted and silly. Veda, her best friend, and her love interest -- all teenagers -- at times sounded like mature adults using very formal speech. They spouted off such overly mature dialogue that it was unrealistic and unbelievable. It was as if all of the characters were following some script where they said what they were supposed to say. As a result, it came off like a school play that was written by a second grader. One character would say how they were feeling, another would rattle off some platitude, and the first would acknowledge how right they were and thank them for making them feel better. I just didn't buy it.
We were also treated to some forced romance. I say forced because it was quite obvious that the relationships didn't happen organically. The first quasi love interest was Jim, Veda's prosthetist. Of course he's much older than her and the reader knows that nothing can come of it, but I thought, at first, that their interaction and Veda's crush were cute. However, once the second love interest, Govinda, was introduced, I grew worried that something unrealistic or overly convenient would happen to get Jim out of the picture. I wasn't wrong. He went from being an altruistic, nice guy who really loved India to a condescending, distant man who couldn't wait to go back to America... and there didn't appear to be any reason for the switch, other than to highlight Govinda as the better love interest. As for Govinda himself... I didn't like him. He's a teenaged boy, a dancer and teacher of the beginners' class that Veda takes after her previous teacher rejects her. Govinda is portrayed as practically perfect: handsome, kind, patient, and respectful of his parents. He also speaks like an 80-year-old yogi. It got a bit annoying after a while. He was just too... nice. Unrealistically so.
Once Govinda was in the picture, things went from bad to worse. At one point, in the midst of a bout of phantom pain so strong that it prevented her from sleeping, Veda -- sweating and desperate -- actually prayed to Shiva for romance advice. This was near the end of the book; had it been earlier, I probably would have laughed and tossed the book into the DNF pile. Priorities, girl!
Overall, I was disappointed. Had this book been written as a prose novel, with more room to develop the characters and setting, it might have worked better. On the other hand, if the dialogue were as silly as it was here, it might not matter. The best thing about this book is its pretty cover; unfortunately, beyond that, it fails on almost every level.
My heels strike the ground fast as fire-sparks.
Streams of sweat trickle down my neck.
My black braid lifts into the air, then whips around my waist.
Nothing else fills me with as much elation
as chasing down soaring music,
catching and pinning rhythms to the ground with my feet,
proud as a hunter rejoicing in his skill.
Recommended to: readers who enjoy foreign settings, though only if they've got good enough imaginations to fill in the gaps themselves
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 ladybugs