Varsha Bajaj’s novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood presents the story of a bi-racial Indian-America girl who’s never met her father. She’s spent her life living in Houston, Texas with her mother being a happy, well-loved American girl who only knows one thing about her father: he is from India.
The story opens with Abby having an allergic reaction to coconut. After having to admit she knows nothing about the medical history of the father of her child, Abby’s mother realizes she needs to attempt to contact him, something she has not tried since she found out she was pregnant. After a very small window of waiting, she is finally able to contact her ex-boyfriend and as it turns out, he never received the registered letter she sent all those years ago explaining Abby’s existence. Abby not only has to deal with the shock that her father never knew about her—up until this point she believed he simply didn’t want to be a part of her life—but she also finds out he is a huge Bollywood star. The rest of the novel revolves around Abby traveling to Mumbai to meet her father and the other half of her ethnicity.
For a girl growing up in a single-parent household, Abby is one of the luckiest. Her mother is a hard-working, but successful small business owner, who always manages to have time for Abby. Her grandparents love and adore her and she herself acknowledges her grandpa is a wonderful substitute for a father. Abby has a close group of friends at her middle school, lives in a nice neighborhood, and seems to financially want for nothing. The only thing lacking in Abby’s life is the presence of her father, but his absence doesn’t create major turmoil in her life. After all, it’s difficult to miss what you never had. The reader gets the sense that Abby really just wants to know about her father: Who he is? What he looks like? Does he think of her? While Abby certainly has questions about her father, she doesn’t ask them. At 13, she’s only just beginning to pepper her mother with rare mentions of her dad.
While the novel presents a mostly happy story of a bi-racial girl exploring her heritage, it does tend to sway heavily towards the a-bit-too-good-to-be-true spectrum. Abby’s reactions and internalizations of the conflicts that occur amongst her family and within herself (which are usually downplayed) are often well beyond the maturity level of a 13 year-old American girl. She barely bats an eye when presented with the concept of her long-lost father having a serious girlfriend and quickly rationalizes that things just didn’t work out between her parents and that’s all well and good. While it’s great she isn’t bitter or depressed over her parent’s short-lived romance or the fact she was cheated (through no one’s fault) out of having a father and second set of grandparents, I find it hard to believe a pre-teen wouldn’t at least harbor some angst over the whole ordeal.
Both of Abby’s parents are calm and understanding with her and each other. Her father is upset that he was never told about Abby’s birth, but he does not blame Abby’s mother or the person responsible for intercepting the registered letter she sent after finding out she was pregnant. Her mother is very accommodating and allows Abby to travel alone internationally to meet her father within weeks of reestablishing contact with him. No mention of custody or back child support occurs, they interact like old friends, and their actions are always in Abby’s best interest. That’s an amazing example of separated parents, but not accurate.
Bajaj’s treatment of race is very gentle. Abby is aware of her Indian heritage from a very young age because it stares back at her in the mirror each day. While she and her mother share the same eye color, she is otherwise a paler version of her father’s features. Priya, one of Abby’s best friends, is also Indian-American, but not bi-racial. Abby’s friendship with Priya, and being around Priya’s parents, is the only glimpse of India Abby has prior to meeting her father unless you count the Indian food her mother sometimes prepares for her. Abby questions if her taste buds are from her father because she enjoys spicy Indian food, but despite her Indian heritage being the only link she is certain she shares with him, she doesn’t seem interested in learning about the country or the culture. This is surprising considering Abby’s thirst for knowledge about her father, yet she doesn’t make any effort to learn about the culture he comes from.
Overall, I think the novel is a nice, happy story about a girl meeting her father for the first time and discovering more about her heritage and pretty much hitting the jackpot when she does so. Her father never knew about her, but as soon as he does he wants to be a part of her life, and he’s rich and famous, but in another country so it won’t disrupt her life back home.
I would recommend the book for children ages 9-13.
Reviewer: Cetoria Tomberlin
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Great books for inclusive practice