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The Prayer Room

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In 1974, the young and callow Englishman George Armitage goes to Madras in the hopes of returning with at least the beginning of his Ph.D. dissertation. Instead, he comes home with a bride named Viji, an Indian woman he barely knows. This seemingly unlikely pair eventually wind up in Sacramento, where they buy a ranch house and give birth to triplets. In this new American w In 1974, the young and callow Englishman George Armitage goes to Madras in the hopes of returning with at least the beginning of his Ph.D. dissertation. Instead, he comes home with a bride named Viji, an Indian woman he barely knows. This seemingly unlikely pair eventually wind up in Sacramento, where they buy a ranch house and give birth to triplets. In this new American world of shag carpets and pudding pops, Viji seeks consolation in her prayer room, which she visits frequently to gossip, sass, and seek advice from the framed portraits of her dead relatives. It is here where Viji feels most herself and where these deceased family members feel “as real to her as she’d been to them.” A hilarious and heartfelt debut, The Prayer Room re-examines the meaning of family—the people who live down the hall, the people who exist only in our memories, and the people who roll their eyes at you from within their picture frames.


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In 1974, the young and callow Englishman George Armitage goes to Madras in the hopes of returning with at least the beginning of his Ph.D. dissertation. Instead, he comes home with a bride named Viji, an Indian woman he barely knows. This seemingly unlikely pair eventually wind up in Sacramento, where they buy a ranch house and give birth to triplets. In this new American w In 1974, the young and callow Englishman George Armitage goes to Madras in the hopes of returning with at least the beginning of his Ph.D. dissertation. Instead, he comes home with a bride named Viji, an Indian woman he barely knows. This seemingly unlikely pair eventually wind up in Sacramento, where they buy a ranch house and give birth to triplets. In this new American world of shag carpets and pudding pops, Viji seeks consolation in her prayer room, which she visits frequently to gossip, sass, and seek advice from the framed portraits of her dead relatives. It is here where Viji feels most herself and where these deceased family members feel “as real to her as she’d been to them.” A hilarious and heartfelt debut, The Prayer Room re-examines the meaning of family—the people who live down the hall, the people who exist only in our memories, and the people who roll their eyes at you from within their picture frames.

30 review for The Prayer Room

  1. 4 out of 5

    Aekta Kapoor

    Shanthi Sekaran’s debut novel, first published in 2009 and re-released by Harper Collins in 2011, looks at an inter-cultural marriage set across three countries and a host of forgotten memories. George, a British student, is forced to marry Viji, a Tamilian, after they are caught making love. What follows is the story of their marriage, as they travel across borders, time zones and life landmarks. Inter-racial, inter-cultural marriages are commonplace today, but that doesn’t mitigate the huge ‘ad Shanthi Sekaran’s debut novel, first published in 2009 and re-released by Harper Collins in 2011, looks at an inter-cultural marriage set across three countries and a host of forgotten memories. George, a British student, is forced to marry Viji, a Tamilian, after they are caught making love. What follows is the story of their marriage, as they travel across borders, time zones and life landmarks. Inter-racial, inter-cultural marriages are commonplace today, but that doesn’t mitigate the huge ‘adjustment’ to be made by those in it. Viji must learn to deal with British and American ways of living and thinking, and overcome a childhood of psychological disturbances before she can find ‘home’. George has to learn to come to terms with his own life choices before he can completely give himself to her. Even as each grapples with inner conflicts, life happens to them relentlessly — triplets are born, an incorrigible father-in-law comes to stay, infidelity takes a casual stroll across the map of their marriage. The book is rife with insight about relationships (“Women were spider silk, so easily torn. Men were clamoring children”), sewn with gentle wit. It’s a book in which nothing dramatic really happens (after all, what more can be said about the immigrant experience?) and yet the narrative keeps you turning the pages, if nothing else but for the sheer pleasure of Sekaran’s deliberately nonchalant play with words. A few details are extraneous, a few skeletons in the closet cliched. Even so, this is a book for lovers of the language. And yet, I was terribly disappointed with Harper Collins’ editing — there are typographical errors every five pages, a missing space even on the cover quote! The blurb on the back describing the book as ‘hilarious and heartfelt’ does not really do justice to its various nuances and strokes of artistry.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Charles Matthews

    This question may sound a bit churlish, but sometimes it's a reviewer's duty to ask churlish questions: With writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni among us, do we really need yet another novel about culture clash in the Indian diaspora? The simple answer is yes, when the novel is as engagingly written and sharply observed as Shanthi Sekaran's The Prayer Room. On the other hand, the genre – the novel of exile -- has begun to engender a certain feeling of déjà vu (or This question may sound a bit churlish, but sometimes it's a reviewer's duty to ask churlish questions: With writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni among us, do we really need yet another novel about culture clash in the Indian diaspora? The simple answer is yes, when the novel is as engagingly written and sharply observed as Shanthi Sekaran's The Prayer Room. On the other hand, the genre – the novel of exile -- has begun to engender a certain feeling of déjà vu (or rather, déjà lu – the feeling that one has read this book before). In Madras, young and somewhat rebellious Viji impulsively marries an Englishman, George Armitage. They settle in suburban Sacramento, where Viji gives birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Before long, they are joined by George's widowed father, Stan, a lecherous old vulgarian. Viji adjusts to her new American life, but she also converts a small room in their house into a puja room, a refuge for meditation filled with statues of the Hindu deities and pictures of dead family members. As the children grow, the marriage of George and Viji stagnates until one day she announces that she is taking the children with her to India. She promises George that she'll have them back before school starts. What she won't promise is whether she'll come back with them. Sekaran calls Sacramento her home town, but now divides her time between Berkeley and London. The Prayer Room, her first novel, is full of lovely and accomplished things, including some breathtaking observations of place. This is India as viewed (and heard and smelled) by George: “sweaty silk, water, the curiously thin coins, ... the empty smell of boiled rice, turmeric, coriander, cumin, coconut oil, cow dung, ... power cuts, irrigation ditches, billboards, hotels, mothballs, citronella, fire. All of it rushed into George each time he inhaled. And when he exhaled, none of it came back out.” And here is England as encountered by Viji: “Every blade of grass looked like every other blade of grass, as if they'd all had a meeting and decided how to be. Blankets upon blankets of miniature flowers, atop the greenest green. Nowhere could she see the dusty roadsides or pointless rock piles of home. The English countryside was like English desserts: custard on pudding, cream on cake, sweet smothering sweet and holding at bay the salty bits of life.” And as if in between both, a kind of tabula rasa for their new life together, the blankness of American suburbia. George's culture shock is almost as acute as Viji's. He had “stepped off the Greyhound bus expecting” to find the vibrant, jazzy America of movies and pop culture. “Instead, he'd found Sacramento.” As he later reflects, “his life would never, ever be anything like a Woody Allen film. No chance encounters on a busy sidewalk, impromptu cups of coffee, or wandering in dusky, cramped bookstores. ... Outside, the streets of Sacramento stretched wide and barren, the sidewalks pristine.” First novelists often try too many things, as if afraid they'll never get another chance to do them. The Prayer Room is a little too loosely constructed, too much a collection of poignant and funny set pieces, without a strong and clear narrative thread to pull the reader through. Some of the narrative seems like mere novelizing: There are Family Secrets to be revealed, and some extramarital dalliance on the part of both George and Viji to be got through. And as an examination of lives led in exile, it has little new to tell us. But delight is in the details, in the wry and often touching perceptions of Sekaran and her characters. A first novel is always a mixture of achievement and promise. They come in equal measure in The Prayer Room. Buoyed up by Sekaran's wit, the book inspires hope that there will be more and better to come from its talented writer.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sharonewoods

    Two stars may be a little harsh, because this is a first novel and the author does have some good phrasing. But I couldn't help thinking this novel was published because some editor said "Quick! Books about Indian immigrants are in! Find something to publish now!" The book isn't bad per se, but the themes have already been tread. Professor husband, Indian bride, nice but boring house in the California burbs. Healthy, good-looking and well behaved kids. Conflict simmers under the surface, but not Two stars may be a little harsh, because this is a first novel and the author does have some good phrasing. But I couldn't help thinking this novel was published because some editor said "Quick! Books about Indian immigrants are in! Find something to publish now!" The book isn't bad per se, but the themes have already been tread. Professor husband, Indian bride, nice but boring house in the California burbs. Healthy, good-looking and well behaved kids. Conflict simmers under the surface, but not enough to make me interested in the characters and to walk through their everyday motions and annoying habits. Started skimming when I realized the book was due at the library, and didn't feel like I missed much. Just not for me, I guess.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie

    I think I will probably never forget the bit about George and his pencils. Shanthi Sekaran very nearly made me want to *be* a pencil!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Christie Bane

    I really enjoyed this book, and the whole time I was reading it I was trying to figure out why exactly I enjoyed it so much. The story -- British guy in India impulsively marries an Indian woman, they move to the U.S. and have triplets, they get ten or so years into their marriage and suddenly it's not that great for either one of them, they separate for a while and she takes their American kids to India, but then they come back together again -- is good but not great, nothing to justify my feel I really enjoyed this book, and the whole time I was reading it I was trying to figure out why exactly I enjoyed it so much. The story -- British guy in India impulsively marries an Indian woman, they move to the U.S. and have triplets, they get ten or so years into their marriage and suddenly it's not that great for either one of them, they separate for a while and she takes their American kids to India, but then they come back together again -- is good but not great, nothing to justify my feeling of excitement when all the day's work is done and that feeling of "I can't wait to get back into this book!" Then at the very end of the book I figured out what it was -- something about this author's writing reminds me of Judy Blume, my favorite childhood author ever. Something about the simple, direct dialogue and descriptions reminds me exactly of Judy Blume. That's why I enjoyed it so much. Aside from that, there was also a darkness throughout most of this book that is kind of hard to explain. When I was reading it, my stomach sort of felt like it was in knots, kind of like the main character Viji in the book. When the book ended, Viji's stomach pains were gone and so were mine. Still haven't figured that out. This book was multicultural and well-written enough to hold my interest throughout. I recommend it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Janet

    The 1st novel by author of Lucky Boy which was WONDERFUL. But this was just ok. actually I probably wouldn't have finished it if I'd had more books along with me on my trip!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Claudia Thompson

    This book could have been good but it was so hastily put together. The beginning was rushed and left you with questions. Then the middle was a hodgepodge of life and two people that don't love each other, and are together for reasons that seemed amazing at the time but once the passion wore off they resented each other. Then comes the kids in the loveless couple's life and you almost feel depressed for the kids. I expected so much more from this book but it dragged on like thick maple syrup but This book could have been good but it was so hastily put together. The beginning was rushed and left you with questions. Then the middle was a hodgepodge of life and two people that don't love each other, and are together for reasons that seemed amazing at the time but once the passion wore off they resented each other. Then comes the kids in the loveless couple's life and you almost feel depressed for the kids. I expected so much more from this book but it dragged on like thick maple syrup but without the sweetness.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Helene

    Just finished this book a little under two weeks--it's a complex story, and I felt satisfaction with the ending. This is Ms. Sekaran's first published novel, and I applaud her for the well-written work. Some parts of the book that could have been improved/expanded upon (I mention these over at my blog as well: - Ultimately, the story seemed more about Viji than anyone else, but the POV shifts from character to character at times. I liked the omnipotent narrator, being able to go through each major Just finished this book a little under two weeks--it's a complex story, and I felt satisfaction with the ending. This is Ms. Sekaran's first published novel, and I applaud her for the well-written work. Some parts of the book that could have been improved/expanded upon (I mention these over at my blog as well: - Ultimately, the story seemed more about Viji than anyone else, but the POV shifts from character to character at times. I liked the omnipotent narrator, being able to go through each major character's thoughts, but some of the characters didn't need to have spotlights. For instance, the children--they were important, but at the same time, they weren't (in terms of POV). I would have liked to see more about Stan and his POV throughout the book to round it out. - I didn't see the significance of dead loved ones talking to Viji while in the puja room; didn't really seem to add much, especially not with the attitude. Other than these aspects, though, the story flowed well, although at times it was confusing to read with the multiple POV. The summary on the back cover didn't seem to fully convey the whole novel too well, but I can't blame that on Sekaran. I wouldn't say the book was hilarious; it was heartfelt and human, but not a comedy. Good overall read in the end, though.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

    Although this novel has been grouped in with the many other Indian diaspora-type fiction of recent years, I'm not sure that's where it belongs. Although the protagonist is a Madras native transplanted to California, the book doesn't really focus on that except as plot and perhaps as embellishment. At its heart it's more of a psychological novel than cultural commentary. It's a study of a marriage, and it reads, feels, and flows a lot like an Anne Tyler novel. The protagonists drift through their Although this novel has been grouped in with the many other Indian diaspora-type fiction of recent years, I'm not sure that's where it belongs. Although the protagonist is a Madras native transplanted to California, the book doesn't really focus on that except as plot and perhaps as embellishment. At its heart it's more of a psychological novel than cultural commentary. It's a study of a marriage, and it reads, feels, and flows a lot like an Anne Tyler novel. The protagonists drift through their lives taking action, somewhat passively, without fully understanding how they got where they are, whether or not they are content with their lives, or even where they want to go. Then there is a slow and partial self-discovery rather than the sudden epiphany found in so many other books. Sekaran has included some lovely metaphors and poetic though uncomplicatd prose. Usually this works but sometimes it feels a little strained. Those few moments don't detract, and overall I'd recommend this as a worthwhile read, though not profoundly affecting or life-changing.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I was very, very bored with this book. The subject matter SOUNDED like something I might be interested in, but in the end the story just fell totally flat for me. Every now and again I came across a line that I found striking; it was not the author's writing that I objected to, but the story just didn't do it for me. I honestly didn't care even a little bit what happened to any of the characters. I continued to read because I hate starting a book and not finishing it, and it's the rare book I fi I was very, very bored with this book. The subject matter SOUNDED like something I might be interested in, but in the end the story just fell totally flat for me. Every now and again I came across a line that I found striking; it was not the author's writing that I objected to, but the story just didn't do it for me. I honestly didn't care even a little bit what happened to any of the characters. I continued to read because I hate starting a book and not finishing it, and it's the rare book I find so truly horrid that I can't make myself keep reading. This was not one of those truly horrid ones, but I just was not at all invested in the story and breathed a sigh of relief when it was over and I could move on. Again, the author's writing was not the problem, so it's possible she will write another novel that I can enjoy more, but this one only gets 2 stars from me.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Susy

    After working with some South Indian women who shared lots of their culture with me, I've been drawn to the "American Desi" experience. And when I learned of this book & that its author had grown up in Carmichael, Ca - a Sacramento suburb I felt compelled to read this first novel. It was just ok; it was fun to read about familiar places and locales but the story didn't really offer anything new to the first generation Indian American experience. I learned a bit about places in India that wer After working with some South Indian women who shared lots of their culture with me, I've been drawn to the "American Desi" experience. And when I learned of this book & that its author had grown up in Carmichael, Ca - a Sacramento suburb I felt compelled to read this first novel. It was just ok; it was fun to read about familiar places and locales but the story didn't really offer anything new to the first generation Indian American experience. I learned a bit about places in India that were unfamiliar but the story didn't pull me in. And, this always bothers me, there were far too many typos in the text for my liking. So, it wasn't a perfect novel but I think the author will mature with future writings.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I came across this book while hunting in the library for a new and entertaining novel to read to keep my mind off the discomfort in my body in 1st trimester of pregnancy. Guess what? It worked! I literally cold NOT put this book down...LOVING the way the author described the inner and outer life of these characters. In fact, it led me to read the following books on Indian culture and immigrating to other countries (see The Namesake and The Twentieth Wife). Both of the authors I read following Se I came across this book while hunting in the library for a new and entertaining novel to read to keep my mind off the discomfort in my body in 1st trimester of pregnancy. Guess what? It worked! I literally cold NOT put this book down...LOVING the way the author described the inner and outer life of these characters. In fact, it led me to read the following books on Indian culture and immigrating to other countries (see The Namesake and The Twentieth Wife). Both of the authors I read following Sekaran's novel followed suit to her captive and flowy style of writing. Read a page and see how it flows. If you like her style, this and the previously mentioned books will tickle your fancy...and perhaps your desire for Indian food!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kris

    It took me a while to like Viji (the main character), but at the end, I thought she was thoughtful enough and intelligent enough to handle the all of the situations in her life. I'm not sure what to make of the other characters, including George, Stan and Kamla. The relationships in the book are all very complicated, and the story seems to be told with a lot underneath the surface. I did enjoy Sekaran's writing. The book kept me involved and went quickly. Overall, though, I feel like the story d It took me a while to like Viji (the main character), but at the end, I thought she was thoughtful enough and intelligent enough to handle the all of the situations in her life. I'm not sure what to make of the other characters, including George, Stan and Kamla. The relationships in the book are all very complicated, and the story seems to be told with a lot underneath the surface. I did enjoy Sekaran's writing. The book kept me involved and went quickly. Overall, though, I feel like the story didn't make a very emotional impact on me. In the book, the characters are unable to make a connection with each other, which is sort of how I felt about the book, like it was keeping me at a distance.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Marie

    A young English scholar returns to England with a bride he doesn't even know instead of the PH.D dissertation. He takes a teaching job in Sacramento CA and his bride learn a new way of living and trying to keep up with triplets. She takes refuge in her "Prayer Room" and talks to her deceased relatives and friends and prays. She goes back to visit India and finally finds out secrets about her family and comes to terms about her upbringing. Then returns to California to continue her life with her A young English scholar returns to England with a bride he doesn't even know instead of the PH.D dissertation. He takes a teaching job in Sacramento CA and his bride learn a new way of living and trying to keep up with triplets. She takes refuge in her "Prayer Room" and talks to her deceased relatives and friends and prays. She goes back to visit India and finally finds out secrets about her family and comes to terms about her upbringing. Then returns to California to continue her life with her husband and children.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Shimi

    I thought this was an absolutely beautiful book. The writing is wonderful, with surprising humor. The story of an immigrant Indian and her displacement isn't new, but the way the author tells it is new, and there are some twists to the story that make it unique and interesting. I found myself immediately drawn into the story within a few pages. I would recommend this book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    A bit slow but there are some high points throughout as the main characters remember (and explain) earlier parts of their lives. Enjoyed the ending but wish some aspects were elaborated on more.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lea

    I wanted to like this book but just didn't get it. I found myself saying "what?!" and "HUH?" several times.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    I am a sucker for books covers that show a woman or girl's feet and/or shoes.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Marianne

    I really enjoyed this book. I was able to empathize will all the characters. It was a fun relaxing read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Grace

    I did not enjoy the book. I thought it held a lot of promise, but was dissapointed in the book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Barb

    I really liked the way she writes...the words just flow off the pages. I was disappointed with the ending!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Wonderful writing -- evokes all the senses. Knobby characters. Look for more from this terrific writer. Good book club book: accessible, yet literary.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kerry

    3.5

  24. 5 out of 5

    Margaret

    Thought it would be better. Some parts were good but all of the characters got on my nerves at some point.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Subha

    The writing was good but the plot and characters themselves were a yawn. I struggled to finish the book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Carew

    This is written by a friend of Aaron's from his Sacramento childhood. I'm only a few pages in, but I'm loving it. The end isn't quite a good as the beginning, but still a fun read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    I didn't like any of the characters.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kyrie Ele

  29. 5 out of 5

    stacig

  30. 5 out of 5

    Shivani

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