Nestled in the suburbs of Atlanta, a family learns the funniest punchlines can hide the hardest truths in this evocative women’s fiction novel from the author of Well-Behaved Indian Women
From the outside, the Joshi family is the quintessential Indian-American family. Decades ago, Bina and Deepak immigrated to America, where she became a pillar of their local Indian community and he, a successful psychiatrist. Their eldest daughter, Suhani, is following the footsteps of her father’s career and happily married. Natasha, their middle daughter, is about to become engaged to the son of longtime family friends. And Anuj, their son—well he’s a son and what could be better than that?
But a family scandal shows that nothing is as it seems. Bina’s oldest friendship starts to unravel and she finds herself as an outsider in the community she helped build. Suhani discovers that her perfect marriage isn’t as solid as she thought. Natasha faces a series of rejections that send her into a downward spiral.
As they encounter public humiliation, gossiping aunties, and self-doubt, the Joshi family must rely on each other like never before. But sometimes, family has to fall apart in order to come back stronger than before.“A wise and moving portrait of an Indian-American family. Saumya Dave renders the Joshi family with such warmth and tenderness — yet never shies away from the complicated truths. A full, big hearted novel.”—Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Jones & the Six
"A bright new voice in women’s fiction.”—Emily Giffin, New York Times bestselling author of The Lies that Bind
“In her wonderful follow up to Well-Behaved Indian Women, Saumya Dave is quickly becoming a go-to author for complex stories of love, relationships and family, all told with her now trademark humor and heart.”—Allison Winn Scotch, bestselling author of Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing
"Dave writes insightful, compelling characters who readers fall in with and root for on their journeys balancing love, family, mental health, careers, and belonging. What a Happy Family is a vivid portrait of family life and I was captivated by the stories of the Joshi clan from the very first page."—Sonya Lalli, author of Serena Singh Flips the Script
“Evocative and nuanced, Saumya Dave’s latest novel, What a Happy Family, captures the tenderness of first and second generation immigrant family life, while providing an empathetic portrait of generational trauma and its impact on mental health. I fell in love with the Joshi family, and enjoyed every step of their journey back to each other!”—Uzma Jalaluddin, author of Hana Khan Carries On
"Saumya Dave beautifully depicts the weaknesses and strengths of a complex and flawed family, while bringing multiple compelling perspectives to mental health issues."—Jane Igharo, author of Ties That Tether
“A sure bet for vacation reading and fans of hopeful family dramas.”—Booklist
“The narrative is thoroughly propulsive, and Dave writes intelligently about the universality of shame, disappointment, and living to please others while simultaneously sharing the unique experiences of a first-generation Desi family.”—Publishers Weekly
“This contemporary Indian American family drama with a strong dose of psychology will have readers rooting for the characters despite their human shortcomings.”—Library JournalSaumya Dave is a writer, resident psychiatrist, and co-founder of thisisforHER. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, Refinery29, and others. She lives in New York City with her husband.
Any second now, Natasha's going to freak out in the exact way her therapist told her not to. She looks around the brunch table. Everyone's still in a good mood, a mood she'll definitely ruin after she makes her big announcement.
Maybe she should wait.
No, she's already put it off too long. And she should be able to handle everyone's reactions. Isn't that what being an adult is about-handling things?
Her boyfriend, Karan, is next to her, laughing at something his mom, Anita Auntie, just said. Anita Auntie tells another joke with a mixture of English and Gujarati words.
"And then," Anita Auntie says as she transitions from jokes to more general gossip, "lnstead of letting her parents look at her horoscope, she swiped left or right or in some God-knows-what direction on her phone. That's how they really met! The we-saw-each-other-on-the-beach-in-Jamaica-tale is just a cover story. Her mom told me at Patel Brothers."
Anita Auntie always uses a combination of charm and curiosity to learn everyone's business. In another life, she could have been a CIA agent. All Natasha's favorite aunties share an endearing and sometimes scary blend of ruthlessness and tenderness.
"She's smart, I tell you," Anita Auntie continues as Karan shakes his head in disbelief. "And so lucky to find someone when she's thirty-eight years old! Ever since I heard about how Meghan Markle started dating Prince Harry, I've told my kids that most people aren't that lucky, okay? Meghan may have gotten a fairy tale in her thirties, but everyone else, when they find someone good enough early on, they need to just seal the deal, like they say here. Otherwise, all the good ones get taken up and then you're left with nothing!"
"I should sew that onto a throw pillow," Natasha scoffs. "Attention, single people everywhere! Go after good enough . . . or else!"
"I'd get one for my dorm room." Her brother, Anuj, runs a hand through his thick, wavy hair, which he hasn't cut since he started his first year at Cornell. The combination of his hair and his boyish face reminds Natasha of Dev Patel.
"Cheers to that." Natasha raises her champagne glass in his direction. She can always count on him to back her up.
"Oh, Natasha!" Mom shakes her head. "Anita made a good point. You girls today don't have the same pressure we did, and sometimes it's important to make sure that, you know, you don't miss out on opportunities."
"Actually, we girls have a lot of pressure, from every possible direction, and don't need more," Natasha says.
Mom doesn't respond. She just purses her lips. Translation: This is not the moment for Natasha to dismantle the patriarchy. Plus, she's going to make Mom mad after she tells her everything. It's better to not rock the boat right now. Instead, she sips her mimosa and tries to ignore that odd mixture of panic and peace that overcomes her whenever she's about to be in trouble.
Her mind drifts to another lesson from her therapist: live in the present.
She can do that. She can be like those light and happy people in that yoga class she went to last weekend. She can smile and take deep breaths and go with the flow. That's how good Indian girls behave, and for the rest of this Sunday, she can at least try to act like one.
Mom hosts this joint family brunch at the Joshi house once a month. On the outside, it looks like a scene from one of those cozy Hallmark movies. Two families who have been best friends for decades. The parents, with their cups of chai and black hair flecked with gray. Their children, dating and working stable jobs that include health insurance. Bowls of green chutney and puffed rice are passed around. The scents of fried eggs and ginger permeate the air. A plate of jalape–o cheddar biscuits is at the center of the table. I'm like Martha Stewart with cumin and chili powder, Mom used to say.
Anita Auntie and Mom launch into another conversation, this one about how some random friend's daughter would be "the perfect match" for the local sari shop owner's son.
Karan squeezes Natasha's forearm. "Our moms are out of control."
"Seriously! And they both keep each other going," Natasha says. Anita Auntie always gets more talkative around Mom. "I get all the Atlanta news from family brunch."
Thank God nobody, not even Karan, knows her news yet. She tries to picture the way everyone will react and then how she'll feel just twenty-four hours from now. What if she hates living back at home? She always seems to regress to her middle school self when she's here. Maybe she's making a terrible mistake.
Her dad and sister, also therapists, would tell her she's catastrophizing again. Her dad and sister would be right.
"Karan, beta," Mom says. "Are you sure you're eating enough?"
Karan smiles and tilts his full plate toward her. "I took thirds!"
Mom beams, satisfied. Feeding people is her love language, but she takes it to another level with her precious Karan because she loves him and also because he's a sign that Natasha has her life together. To be fair, Mom's not the only one who feels this way. Everyone thinks that just because Natasha's in a long-term relationship, she must have some grand things figured out, when really, people in relationships can be just as messed up as people not in them.
Mom squeezes her hands together and says, "Ketlo dayo chokro che."
"Yes, we all know he is such a good boy," Natasha says.
"You're all great kids." Dad smiles.
Jiten Uncle, Karan's dad, nods. Mom and Anita Auntie exchange grins. What is with everyone today?
Natasha tries to motion to Anuj to ask him if he also thinks something's weird about the vibe. But Anuj doesn't shift his focus from the parents, who are all now laughing about the way Dad and Mom said "Francis Cut Key" when they were asked on the citizenship test who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." Apparently, one of their friends in Bombay had pronounced the name that way and it stuck. Dad's told this story a million times but still gets a kick out of it.
"Ah, we really had no idea what we were doing when we came to this country," Dad says, laughing. He and Anuj glance at their Apple watches. "Where are Suhani and Zack? Anuj, can you check on them?"
"I'll do it!" Natasha yelps before her brother has a chance to say anything. "I'm, uh, going to go grab some more stuff anyway."
By "stuff," Natasha means "alcohol." Once she's safely in the kitchen, she pours herself another mimosa the proper way, champagne with just a splash of orange juice. She takes a whiff of the fruity drink and wraps her sweaty palm around the cool, smooth glass. At least if everyone's in this great a mood, her news will be received better. She learned years ago that timing is everything when it comes to her family. Depending on the emotional temperature of their house, the same bad report card could result in either Mom yelling or everyone giving Natasha an endless lecture about her lack of trying.
She sends a quick text to her sister and brother-in-law: ETA?
Suhani: Two minutes!
Suhani sends three smiley-face emojis. Suhani and Mom love using emojis and GIFs.
"Hey, where'd you go?" Karan comes into the kitchen and hands her a plate of fried potatoes. "I brought you some food."
"I don't deserve you." Natasha stabs four potato wedges with a fork.
Maybe it's because they're now in their early twenties, but she's starting to see how her boyfriend is perfect husband material. Conventionally handsome. Cultured. Caring.
And polite. Really polite. In every way, whether it's how he tucks in his Bonobos shirts, holds doors open, or says "please" before every question. Even his penis is polite, rising to the occasion (literally) only when Natasha's ready.
But then why has she been so off lately? Why has it taken more effort to be around him or around anyone?
It doesn't matter right now. All that matters is that she's taking the first big step to making a change in her life. She pictures herself two hours from now, after she's announced that she needs a break from everything. Of course, she won't say she got fired, gently fired-her boss gave her an it's-not-you-it's-us type of speech Natasha thought was only reserved for breakups on television. She'll tell everyone that she's done being an assistant at an ad agency, that she's taken the initiative and decided for herself that there will be nothing else besides focusing on her (not yet existent) comedy career. Like a charming talk show host, she'll make her point both clever and compelling. (In her mind, she says all of it in a British accent. Her imagined adult conversations are always in a British accent for some reason.) Her parents won't take it well, but Karan and her siblings will get it. And after the words are out, that'll be it. Just her and the sweet freedom of knowing she is officially going after her dreams. She is one step closer to being like those bold and brave women she's admired for so long.
Natasha and Karan go back to the dining room, where Dad is in the middle of one of his speeches.
"So, of course, he's fine now, but this really all goes back to social justice." Dad raises a fist into the air. He has a habit of turning even the most mundane anecdotes into dramatic monologues that somehow always conclude with a topic that riles everyone up. At Suhani's wedding, his toast ended with, "And here's to life! And better mental healthcare for all! And to never forgetting what's important to fight for!" A flurry of cheers and whistles erupted through the crowd and was repeated after Mom had finished with her part of the speech. A Deepak and Bina Joshi performance never ended quietly.
"Natasha." Mom motions to Natasha with a freshly manicured hand. "Come help me for a second."
Once they step into the hallway behind the dining room, Mom squints at her. "You didn't want to do your hair before brunch?"
"Or put on a little eyeliner?"
"Or stop biting your nails?"
"Again, no." Natasha pretends to ignore Mom's gaze scanning her from head to toe. "I'm going for the effortlessly chic look, emphasis on the effortless. You should try it. Once you wear athleisure and no makeup, there's really no going back."
The steely look in Mom's eyes makes Natasha think she's getting ready to run after her with tweezers or a mascara wand.
But Mom just sighs. "Fine. If you go to the laundry room, you'll see two gift bags by the sink. Can you go get them for me? They're saris for Anita Auntie."
"You got her saris just because?" Natasha asks.
Mom and Anita Auntie are always picking up little gifts for each other-lipsticks, novels with hot guys on the covers, spices from Patel Brothers-but saris are typically reserved for celebrations. When Natasha's sister, Suhani, got married, the upstairs linen closet was stuffed with yards of jewel-toned fabrics.
"I picked them up from that new boutique in Decatur a couple of weeks ago," Mom says. "Suhani wrapped them up nicely for me."
Of course she did, Natasha thinks. Her sister comes home every other week and somehow has no problem helping out with the most boring tasks. Natasha feels pangs of guilt and peace at the reminder of Suhani taking on the responsibility of always being there for their parents, even though she's married and works eighty hours a week.
"Okay, I'll go get them later," Natasha says.
"Get them now." Even though Mom is still smiling, there's an edge to her voice. "And then give them to Anita Auntie, okay?"
"Why did you get them for her?"
"Because she'll like them, that's why."
"Okay." Natasha drags out the latter syllable so it sounds like she's saying "Okaaaay."
She takes her time to walk to the other side of the first floor. The house hasn't changed in years. Mom found a way to infuse personality into each room through a combination of colorful wallpapers, framed family photos, and soft yellow lighting. Every shelf is adorned with a mixture of statues of Hindu goddesses and souvenirs from trips around the world.
Natasha returns with the saris and hands them to Anita Auntie.
"Thank you, beta." Anita Auntie leans forward to hug Natasha. "I can't wait to wear these."
She doesn't seem surprised at all to get two bags of saris.
Before Natasha can ask anything, Anita Auntie turns to Mom and says, "Ah, Bina, the house still looks so festive. I can't believe it's already been two months since Suhani and Zack got married!"
Natasha follows her gaze and takes in the perfect dŽcor that was arranged for her perfect sister, who was, of course, a perfect bride. Jasmine garlands drape the windows. Giant brass pots are filled with floating candles and rose petals. Dyed rice is in the shape of a massive lotus flower by the front door.
"We love all of it." Mom nods in agreement. "I don't ever want to take the decorations away. Deepak's letting me indulge for another month. I can't even imagine the house without all this!"
Mom places a hand on her cheek as though she's delivering some sort of profound monologue. She may have quit acting decades ago, but her need for dramatic, grand statements will never disappear.
"Maybe you can just keep them up. You know, until you need them again." Anita Auntie flashes a not-at-all-subtle smile toward Natasha and Karan.
"They do look good," Karan agrees. "How about le-"
"I think you should take them down," Natasha interjects. "They're quite intense."
"Oh c'mon, Natasha, your sister's wedding was beautiful. And brides are so much fun to see! All those gorgeous clothes, the youth," Anita Auntie says. "Didn't Suhani's wedding make you want . . ."
Anita Auntie makes a lot of her points by starting a comment and letting it trail off.
"Please," Mom says. "Natasha would never agree to a traditional wedding. She's already made that clear to us."
"But you'd look so nice!" Anita Auntie says as though she's made a groundbreaking scientific discovery. "Just like Priyanka Chopra!"
Natasha zones out as her boyfriend's mother gushes about every mundane detail of the celebrity wedding. Leave it to her to compare Natasha to a movie star when, in reality, Natasha was cast as LeFou, Gaston's sidekick, in her middle school's version of Beauty and the Beast.
"Yup, I'd look just like Priyanka, without the plump lips, thick hair, and toned body," Natasha says. "But Mom's right. I'm not interested in having a wedding like Suhani and Zack's."
|What a Happy Family