The Shape of Family is Shilpi Gowda’s third novel, and her first two have been international bestsellers. Born and raised in Canada but now living in California, Gowda brings a cosmopolitan sensibility to her fictional world. This new work explores the lives of the Olander family where the mother, Jaya, is of Indian heritage but had a cosmopolitan upbringing because of her father’s job; the father Keith, is an American who grew up in a small town and faced economic hardships; the daughter Karina is a teenager; and the son, Prem, is a young boy. The novel explores the family dynamics and how a tragic accident involving Prem devastates the family. Jaya, Keith, and Karina, each has to find their way through grief and the inevitable transformations of family life.
The narrative focuses on each of these characters alternatively, but Karina seems to be the main character upon whom the narrative is built. We see the family struggling along for a few years. Jaya finds solace in her Hindu religion and becomes completely focused on ritual and prayer as she discovers a spiritual heritage she had barely known. Keith throws himself into his work as an investment banker and feels compelled to make lots of money to keep his family in comfort. Karina leads a double life unable to share her feelings with her parents or her therapist and seeks solace in cutting. Soon the marriage falls apart and Keith moves out of the family home while still providing for his wife and daughter.
Karina graduates high school and leaves for college in Santa Barbara—far enough away from her parents but not too far from them either. She expects college to bring her freedom and a new life that will be radically different from her miserable teen years. However, her biracial identity and her family history of tragedy keep her from finding a community in college.
She is drawn to a biology lab and its plant ecology research and makes friends there and even finds her first romantic relationship. However, as is wont to happen in college life, the relationship does not last through their separation over summer break and Karina is heartbroken once again. Vulnerable and lost, she is seduced by a charismatic cult leader, drops out of college and moves into the commune, lies to her parents about her college life, and gets drawn into nefarious and criminal activities because of the cult leader.
Keith is caught up in his own legal problems with an SEC investigation and does not recognize that his daughter is in deep trouble. In the meantime, Jaya, is drawn to a guru and begins to follow him and starts to heal through the spiritual community and her own growing spirituality. The family problems explode and Karina’s crisis brings them together in a different way to understand each other and to heal themselves.
The novel has carefully crafted characters and demonstrates a thoughtful understanding of family dynamics and how grief can shatter individuals and families. The portrayal of Karina as a deeply traumatized college student and her struggles with community and healing are particularly well done. The novel could easily have veered into the sentimental or maudlin, but it handles the heavy subject matter well and offers an uplifting ending. One narrative element that this reader found awkward was the occasional narrative interludes featuring a child’s voice from the grave—the novel might have been better off without that device that stretches the reader’s credulity.