At the center of the novel is the thwarted mother-daughter relationship between Asha and Noomi Wadia. The story unfolds like an onion, layer upon layer of painful family secrets, lies, shame, and loss of love. As much as Noomi wants to take her own path, she keeps running into fate, which seems to have a different plan for her. Eventually, she too develops the same hard-drinking and chain-smoking habits of her mother, much to her chagrin. Her father, Jeh, dies trying to protect his family, first his wife and then his daughter.
As Noomi matures, she struggles to be her own person. She gets a job as a journalist, even though such a position is unusual for someone from her elevated social class. She tries to create a semblance of a normal life, away from her mother’s troubles. Confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, she gets an abortion because she assumes that’s what someone like her would do. Throughout these private dramas, she continues to keep an emotional distance from her mother. Jeh helps by building an emotional bubble around her, trying his best to protect her from the stifling traps of small-town patriarchy and the insatiable demands of the moneyed elite. Charting a path from Kamalpur to Delhi to Mumbai to, eventually, New York, Noomi continues to grapple with addiction and to search for love. Along the way, there are appearances to be kept up, secrets to be shared, and people to be shamed.
Because of her willfully neglectful mother, Noomi is unused to love, and when she experiences it, she cannot contain herself. “Love squeezed my heart. Lily Mama was good at hiding how much she cared for me.” There is plenty of self-sabotage, with Noomi inflicting harm of all kinds on herself. Even her relationship with the man she eventually marries, Veer, seems doomed from the start. After a first meeting with her in-laws, she comes back thinking about “what being married to Veer would be like. I looked out of the window. Delhi slid past in a nauseating blur. I groaned and closed my eyes.” Even though she knows it’s going to be a failure, she dives headlong into the marriage.
An MFA graduate from Columbia University, Patel has a style that is highly polished while also displaying the lived-in comfort of a writer who knows her territory. The prose wanders in places but quickly finds its way again. The writing is, perhaps, a bit too beautiful at times, almost as if Patel wanted to perfect her prose more than her characters. The first-person format heightens the novel’s claustrophobia, yet there is also a poetic, winsome understanding of human nature at the heart of Patel’s writing. In the hands of a lesser writer, characters like Noomi, Veer, and Asha could easily become intolerable. Yet Patel brings empathy to their depiction, making them much more than mere caricatures.
The novel is dotted with poignant descriptions of Kamalpur, the small town where Noomi comes of age. “An unspoken rule in Kamalpur was that well-bred women did not order their own drinks at the bar.” It’s lovely how the author puts her finger on these small-town mores without making them seem clichéd. Her descriptions of the big cities Noomi visits as places pulsing with a sense of joy stand in stark contrast to the dank, gossipy small town of Kamalpur. The cities are strange and alive: Mumbai is “a nautical city whose spirit is reflected in the details of its buildings — with portholes, ship deck railings and observatory towers,” and Delhi seems to have “grown like moss.”
In the Indian society Mirror depicts, mental health therapy is a quirky outsider concept. Families and social circles, especially those distinguished by wealth, may be able to handle a young woman who occasionally overindulges in alcohol, but they cannot manage a foul-mouthed, brazenly drunk woman who does not know how to hide her intoxication behind a decorous facade. Struggling with her two-faced husband and his expectations, Noomi tries to drown her anxieties in alcohol.
I twisted off the bottle cap, poured three fingers of vodka into a glass and drank it down. The horrid evening fell from my skin like leeches dowsed with salt. I can handle it, I thought, pouring myself another. I’d have to become two people — Noomi Wadia and Noomi Malhotra.
Passages like this show how Patel brings dignity to her characters.
The mother-daughter duo, each afflicted by addiction, does not evoke the reader’s sympathy, however. But Patel is undaunted, as she dares to write about unlikable women, a far cry from the demure females that have long featured in Indian fiction. Even the women Noomi meets socially are not exactly nice people: they are often possessive, negative, and bitchy, seldom mincing words, never hiding their intentions. Fighting for love is a cutthroat business.
Mirror Made of Rain reminded me of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter (2021). Both stories tackle the unspoken burdens society puts on mothers. In the book, Asha is constantly punished for not being a good mother, while in the movie (based on an Elena Ferrante novel), Olivia Colman’s Leda Caruso is unable to move on from the hurt she inflicted on her daughters over two decades ago. Both stories connect the social implications of being a “poor” mother with class identities, small-town rigidities, and gender hierarchies. Patel has given us a dark, moody, brooding novel that explores the fissures of family with delicacy and conviction.
Anandi Mishra is an essayist and critic, who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. One of her essays has been translated to Italian and published in the Internazionale magazine. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Public Books, Electric Literature, LitHub, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popula, The Brooklyn Rail, and Al Jazeera, among others. She tweets at @anandi010.