Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins

Sunita Sen, 13, is a typical California teenager who likes to play tennis, eat pizza, do well in school and really likes Michael Morrison, with whom she has just spent the summer.  She also has a best friend since first grade, Liz Grayson, and a riva for Michael's affections - the very flirty LeAnn Schaeffer.  Oh, yes and Sunita is an Indian American who has really not given a lot of thought to her Indian heritage.  That is, until her grandparents, Dadu and Didu - arrived from Kolkata for a year long visit with Sunita and her family.

Suddenly, her professor mother goes from wearing tailored suits and silk shirts to wearing sarees, a red dot on her forehead and red powder stripe in her hair to indicate she is married.  She even quits her university job for a year to stay home and cook Indian food for her family. And when she tells Sunita no boys in the house, not even to play ping pong in the basement, she apparently drives Michael right into the arms of LeAnn.  Sunita has cut herself off from Michael anyway, not wanting to tell him about her grandparents and thinking he wouldn't like her Indian family.

As her grandparents settle into the Sen household, Dadu decides to plant an elaborate garden of flowers and vegetables in the backyard, while Didu becomes hooked on American soap operas, in particular, one called Endless Hope, even deciding to participate in the Endless Hope Plot Solution Contest (this is a very funny side-storyline).

But as time goes on, and Sunita misses Michael, and resents his apparent attraction to LeAnn, and as she watches her mother's attempt to be the perfect Indian daughter for her parents, she becomes angrier and angrier and begins to withdraw from everyone.

Can Sunita learn how to happily be both Indian and American?

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen is what I like to think of as a journey or process novel. The single event, her grandparent's visit, that brings on the conflict of cultures that Sunita feels is the start of her journey towards understanding who she is.

And Sunita is an interesting character.  At first, she is somewhat bratty, pouting, getting angry, and even lashing out at home and school, totally stunning her parents when she finally, angrily, tells her mother what she thinks of everything.  But the beauty of coming of age novels, is that there is generally definite positive growth for the main character, and Sunita certainly does grows.

Sunita seems to epitomize the dilemma of adolescents who are standing between cultures and feeling like they must choose one over the other.  Feeling confused, lost and alone, she turns to her grandfather for company, gradually realizing how very wise he is about human nature, so that, ironically, it takes this visit from her Indian grandparents to teach Sunita how to embrace both cultures.

Original 1993 Cover
I really liked The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen.  It takes a serious topic and handles it with a nice measure of respect, seriousness and humor. And along the way, the reader learns a good bit about Indian culture and customs.  And I loved the way Perkins has treated the intergenerational theme.  I thought they were realistically drawn, avoiding the kind of grandparent stereotypes so common in a three-generation household.

It was originally published under the title The Sunita Experiment in 1993 and I believe it is Mitali Perkins's debut novel. I thought that Perkins did a phenomenal job capturing Sunita's personality and her conflicted feelings about her heritage.  I read this on the heels of Born ConfusedBombay Blues and a few other more current books about Indians or Indian Americans, and I felt that even though this came out 23 years ago, it doesn't feel at all dated except that no one has a cell phone.

Actually the only thing I didn't like was Sunita's daydreaming scenes related to her favorite movie Casablanca.  Even though I got the significance of them in terms of her awakening awareness of how other cultures are presented in movies (and books), I still felt it interfered with the narrative flow, but not to the point that I wouldn't still highly recommend this book to readers.

You can find some thought-provoking discussion questions for The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library



  1. I find these sorts of stories fascinating - I'm a child of immigrants, but we never spoke of my parents' heritage, everything was about being Canadian and fitting in to Canadian culture. Which sometimes meant that I felt jealous of kids like Sunita who really seemed like they belonged somewhere, who had a long history of traditions to celebrate and be proud of and a culture to fit into, while I felt disjointed and left out. It all goes to show, of course, that other people's lives always seem easier and simpler and better when looking at them from the outside, when in reality nothing is every that straightforward!

  2. Thank you for this in-depth review! Will definitely add this book to my reading list. #diversekidlit

  3. This looks like an interesting reading. It'll be add to my reading list this summer.Thank you for sharing!

  4. I like what you say about cell phones :-) I think this is one of those books that will just keep being read and it's great to read your review - thanbk you.


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