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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #44 (November 1, 2005), page 16.

An Indian summer, in more ways than one

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen

By Mitali Perkins

Little, Brown, 2005

Paperback, 176 pages, $6.99

By Josephine Bridges

Sunita Sen is one quirky, crabby, culturally challenged teenager. "When Ingrid Bergman cried, thought Sunita, tears glistened glamorously in her eyes." Throughout The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, our protagonist compares herself unfavorably to Bergman — "A round, basically cheerful face was just not designed to allure" — and this is only one of a multitude of eccentricities that make this one fine read.

I’m partial to deftly crafted minor characters, and The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen is brimming with them. Sunita’s sister Geetie thinks that makeup is "a symbol of male dominance — as well as a waste of natural resources. She’d probably spend her life uniting all the tribal women in the world in one huge recycling project or something." LeAnn is Sunita’s relentlessly chirpy rival. "Whenever LeAnn talked, Sunni always pictured it as part of a conversation in a book and felt an irrational surge of dislike for exclamation points."

The major characters — Sunita’s parents and grandparents, her best friend Liz, and her heartthrob Michael — are terrific. Sunita’s grandmother, for example — Didu in Bengali — who is visiting from India, reminds us that something perfectly acceptable in one culture may be deeply offensive in another. In this case it’s Sunita’s request to sleep at a friend’s house. Says Didu, "She is announcing to the world that she prefers somebody else’s home and family to her own."

Mitali Perkins has a feel for strange and wonderful language. She writes about "the shrouds of dry-cleaner’s bags" and names a soap opera Endless Hope. And you can just imagine her giggling when she decides that Didu would call New York "the Large Apple."

There are at least three epiphanies in The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. Sunita not only comes to appreciate the very people she’s been thinking of as scourges, she also begins, thanks to Mr. Riley, "a deadly, consciousness-raising type of teacher," to look at her beloved Casablanca with a heightened cultural awareness. "Didn’t Sam have a life of his own? Why did he have to call her Miss Ilsa when she just called him Sam? Where was Casablanca anyway? Wasn’t it in Africa? Why were there no black Africans in the entire movie?" Sunita also learns that it’s probably better to tell the icky truth and trust that your friends can live with it, instead of withdrawing from them and letting them draw far worse conclusions than the icky truth.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen offers us a visitor’s perspective on what’s good about this country, a refreshing and welcome twist. "You have two marvelous institutions in America that you must never take for granted," Sunita’s grandfather — Dadu — says. "One is the public library system. And the other is your national parks and forests."

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