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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Family Planning

Karan Mahajan

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To purchase Family Planning

Title: Family Planning
Author: Karan Mahajan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 266 pages
Availability: Family Planning - US
Family Planning - UK
Family Planning - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : agreeable enough, if uncertain in purpose

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 23/2/2009 Melissa McClements
The Guardian . 28/2/2009 Catherine Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle . 7/12/2008 Joan Frank
The Washington Post . 21/12/2008 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a bittersweet comedy set in a thoroughly 21st-century subcontinent." - Melissa McClements, Financial Times

  • "Mahajan, with supreme self-assurance, fashions a subtle, cutting take on modern India." - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "Here's what's good about Family Planning: its language and energy, irreverent, fresh and sometimes, given its author's youth, preternaturally wise. (...) Almost every page bears a passage worth quoting, and sentences crackle along, bursting at frequent intervals with little fireworks of wit, pelting a reader's senses with smells, light, heat. One's mild reservation is that nonstop, antic assault (even marbled with serious rumination) may risk tiring a reader and create a hankering for a more coherent trajectory." - Joan Frank, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Mahajan's domestic and political comedy bounces along so lightly that the story's moments of despair strike oddly discordant notes (.....) Mahajan is only 24 years old, but he has already developed an irresistible voice with a rich sense of humor fueled by sorrow." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Family Planning centres around the Ahuja family. The father, Rakesh, is Minister of Urban Development in India (as a member of the KJSZP (H202) party), and also presides over a huge family, a baker's dozen worth of children, with another on the way as the novel begins. The son that gets the most attention in the book is the eldest, by four year, Arjun.
       The novel opens noting that Rakesh is only attracted to his wife, Sangita, when she is pregnant -- hence the reason for seeing to it that she is constantly in that state. Still, the marriage seems to be working out fine enough, though with the constant bustle in the house there's little time to really give much thought to anything, and everyone -- Mr. and Mrs.Ahuja, but also Arjun -- seem very much preoccupied with their own worlds in any case.
       As it turns out, things are not entirely straightforward. The Ahuja's marriage certainly didn't turn out anything like they expected -- and Rakesh had, in fact, been married previously. Rakesh's first wife died in America, and Arjun is the son from that union -- though he has never been told that. But Rakesh thinks now is the time to clear that up. Meanwhile, Arjun is going through typical teen phases -- he has a crush on a girl, he forms a band, he's embarrassed by his family (and hasn't ever admitted to any of his friends having anywhere near as many siblings as he does).
       Complicating matters further, Rakesh resigns -- yet again: it's the sixty-third time -- from his ministerial post. And the character played by Sangita's favourite TV actor is killed off, which she really takes to heart.
       Family Planning is an agreeable family novel of a household so bubbling over with activity that there's little clear communication possible between the various members. Conversations that try to clear up anything -- most notably Rakesh's attempts to explain that Arjun is not Sangita's son to both his siblings and Arjun -- tend to go spectacularly poorly. The (confusing) news about his true status in the family -- especially as presented by his father (who harps on the state of Arjun's penis (born in America, Arjun was circumcised, while his Indian-born brothers were not)) -- clearly leaves Arjun even more at sea in a household where he both enjoys his role as oldest brother (and the power that goes with it) and caretaker, yet isn't always sure he wants to be that involved in the day-to-day activities. (Walking in on his parents having sex didn't help either.)
       Mahajan has a very nice touch in describing these slightly dazed souls -- Rakesh as: "an absent busybody father, a gene transmitter, a blur of power in their lives", for example. Delhi, and politics, are also nicely realised here, from the sycophancy demanded by the party leader ("You passed the test. This is my test. Any new party member who is honest with me, I immediately dismiss, anyone who keeps flattering no matter what -- them I keep") to the different ways of dealing with all the parties involved when the boys in the band strike a pedestrian while driving.
       It all makes for a solid portrait of contemporary India which doesn't try too hard to be that. It is a domestic tale, a glimpse of a family that has gotten out of hand (and how it got there), and if it feels uncertain in aim -- the two poles, Rakesh and Arjun, pulling it apart, the stories Mahajan tells about each too different to really click together -- it is consistently entertainingly told.
       Mahajan has obvious talent, and it's a relief that his debut manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of debut-fiction (the tortured-adolescent storyline tempered by the adult side of things). It doesn't add up to quite enough here, but the skill he displays with what he works with here suggests once he has something more to write about he might manage very well indeed.

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Family Planning: Reviews: Karan Mahajan: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Karan Mahajan was born in 1984. Raised in India, he attended Stanford and lives in the United States.

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© 2009 the complete review

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