Establishing Connections

At the end of 2021, I was deciding which book to commence my 2022 reading journey with. I had a vision of how I was going to start it – I wanted to read 2021 books that were left in my backlog – but I had no idea which book I am going to start it with, especially since there were a lot of possible candidates. To be on the safer side, I was contemplating reading the works of familiar (to me) writers such as two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, and Amor Towles’s The Lincoln Highway. I was looking forward to reading both books when I learned of their 2021 releases. I was also considering reading new-to-me writers such as Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel, The Prophets, and Rachel Cusk’s 2021 Booker Prize longlisted book, Second Place.

After evaluating all my choices, I settled on Sara Nisha Adams’ The Reading List, a book that I first encountered towards the end of 2021. It immediately piqued my interest. Sans any iota on what the book was about, I obtained a copy of the book because of the title and also because of the generally positive feedback on the book. I was also wondering what the book had in store. I felt like it would be a great place to start a new reading journey, a proverbial “reading list”. Moreover, it presented the perfect opportunity to explore a new voice, The Reading List being Adams’ debut novel. Needless to say, my anticipation for the book was building up.

Set in the London suburb of Wembley, The Reading List chronicled the story of two individuals. The first of these two primary characters was eighty-year-old Mukesh Patel who, two years ago, lost his wife, Naina. Time heals all wounds they say and in the case of Mukesh, it was surely takings its time. Despite the passage of time, he was still deep in mourning. Mukesh and Naina had three daughters but all of their daughters now have their own lives. There was nothing to occupy him but the dullness of routine and the misery of loneliness. It was increasing becoming palpable that he was withdrawing into himself, something that did not escape his daughters’ notice. To break the monotony that has come to dominate his life, his daughters kept bombarding him with daily calls. These calls, however, only made him recede further into himself.

“They were all her favourite books, the books she had grown up with, the books that had found her at the right time, that had given her comfort when she needed it, had given her an escape, an opportunity to live beyond her life, an opportunity to love more powerfully, a chance to open up and let people in.”

~ Sara Nisha Adams, The Reading List

His life took an unexpected turn when he found a copy of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, one of his wife’s favorite books. Unlike Mukesh who was averse to books, Naina was an avid reader. When he opened the book, Mukesh didn’t expect that he would be engrossed by the story. With every page he turned, he found remnants of Naina; the book made him feel closer to his deceased wife. The story of Henry DeTamble and Clare Anne Abshire, starcrossed lovers from different time dimensions, spoke volumes to him. Their (tragic) love story mirrored the same deep love he had for Naina while, at the same time, it also captured the heartbreaking experience of watching her disintegrate and lose her battle with cancer.

From one book to another. Mukesh finally found something to occupy his time, beyond his daughter’s constant prodding. He scrambled to the library, with the hopes of reading more books. There, he encountered the book’s second primary character, Aleisha. Like Mukesh, seventeen-year-old Aleisha was no fan of reading but she took on the part-time summer job at the library upon the recommendation of her brother, Aidan. Mukesh asked Aleisha for a reading recommendation but she was rude and unhelpful to him because she was having a bad day. Regret for her behavior eventually hit her. By coincidence, she came across a piece of paper that listed eight books recommended for reading, the titular “reading list”. “Just in case you need it,” it said on the paper. Intrigued, Aleisha started reading the first book on this list, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. She put the book on hold and recommended it to Mukesh once he returned to the library.

Completing the reading list are Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. As it is, I have read all but the last two books on this list, although I have lined up A Suitable Boy for reading this year as part of my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. Meanwhile, I am still to obtain a copy of Morrison’s Beloved. Nonetheless, it was an eclectic but interesting mix of books that covered different genres, from gothic to mystery to romance to bildungsroman. In eight books, The Reading List nearly covered all major genres, save for some. I have also enjoyed, in varying degrees, the books that I have already read, which was enough to compel me to keep on reading the book.

With the variety encapsulated in the book, The Reading List is a treat for avid book lovers. One can easily find a book one loves in the eight selections featured in the novel. To compliment the first list, Adams also gave her own reading list of eleven other books, written by female writers, save for Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I am equally astounded by the author’s book recommendations which included Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I have yet to read the rest of the books on the list and with Adams’ recommendation, it is a no-brainer that I will be adding them to my growing reading list. This makes the book an homage to books, reading, librarians, and book lovers everywhere.

“But as the words of the story wash over him, he traces the sentences with his fingers, trying to re-create that feeling of being grounded, rooted to the spot, nothing more than a body, reading words, allowing his mind to wander elsewhere. He can feel the story take control of his mind, pulling him away. His own thoughts, his worries, that voice, begin to buzz at the back of his mind, and eventually they become nothing but white noise.”

~ Sara Nisha Adams, The Reading List

As captured by the novel, books are a great form of escape from our pains, our ugly realities, and the things that cause us great stress. Books have become their form of escape from their concerns outside of the library. While Mukesh was escaping from the ominous silence and isolation of his house, Aleisha, on the other hand, was dealing with her own heartaches at home. She and her older brother have taken on the job of taking care of their mother, Leilah. Books provide us company when we are alone, keeping our minds churning. It is in their pages that we lose ourselves. These stories transport us to different places, worlds, dimensions, and realms we have never dreamt of, albeit through our imaginations.

The story appealed to me because it reminded me of some of the reasons why I love reading. Books and stories also have a lot to teach us. We get to learn about other people, other cultures, and other ideas. Books make us realize that there is a bigger world out there waiting for us to explore. Beyond educating us, books also give us different or new perspectives. In these stories, we also find a surfeit of wisdom that can guide us in our daily lives. One prominent literary voice that permeated every page of the main story with its wisdom was Atticus Finch, the main voice of morality in To Kill A Mockingbird. It was to his wisdom that Mukesh, at times, deferred. Atticus was embedded in the story that he almost took the shape of a main character.

In all of these stories, we find the different powers that books hold and how they influence our lives. When maximized, books can enlighten and empower. It can inspire and also bring a family closer together. They are bridges that help establish or even strengthen relationships, a reality that many readers can relate to. This was vividly depicted in the story of Mukesh and Aleisha. Aleisha would read the books on the reading list – which has served as their guide into the world of literature – first before he recommends them to Mukesh. Mukesh’s growing interest in reading led him to Aleisha who herself became a reader. Strangers became friends. When these former non-readers get together, they discuss their thoughts on the merits of each of these books.

As they enjoy these discourses, we see their friendship blossom. By taking up reading, Mukesh was also hoping to bridge the gap between him and his granddaughter, Priya. Priya was gifted with her grandmother’s love for books. It was also compelling how reading the books made Mukesh and Aleisha open up. Slowly, they became more outgoing and even more trusting. As reading became an integral part of their lives, they started making connections with the other members of the community. Reading has the power to heal, drive away loneliness, and make us believe in a better version of ourselves. Reading helps us overcome our prejudices. In a way, Mukesh reminded me of Ove in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. Mukesh was also partly drawn from the author’s own grandfather.

“They were walking through forest. She could see nothing but trees. Tall trees, thin trunks, and long, spiky green leaves. Fir trees, her dad told her. She was in a fir forest. She could hear birds and some dogs barking in the distance, though it sounded as though they might be right beside her. She kept turning around to check. Her dad told her to stop moving, he would lose his footing.”

~ Sara Nisha Adams, The Reading List

However, it wasn’t just Mukesh and Aleisha whose lives were transformed by the reading list. The story was punctuated by the stories of other members of the community who encountered the reading list. In different ways, the books on the list have impacted their lives. This further reiterated the great impact of reading on bringing the community together. It also underlined the importance of libraries in the dynamics of our communities. They are catalysts in the building of community spirit. Beyond the wonders of reading and libraries, The Reading List also explored seminal and timely subjects such as mental health, depression, and suicide.

One interesting facet of the book was how the plot was aligned with the plots of the books on the reading list. This strengthened the character’s connections with the books. However, as the book moved forward, these connections started to thin out as the main storyline took a firmer shape. This, however, gave an uneven representation of the books. But then again, no book is perfect. While the stories of other members of the community gave the novel a kaleidoscopic atmosphere, the plurality of perspectives made up for an unfocused story which made the story drag. Mukesh and Aleisha remained the main characters of the story while the other characters were vessels in the creation of a sense of community.

Despite its blunders, the book’s strengths far outweighed its weaknesses. Overall, The Reading List is a love song to readers, reading, books, and libraries. In so many ways, the book vividly and poignantly reminded us of the reasons why we read and the magic that books hold. It is to books that we escape but also within its pages our imagination churn. In books, we find a better version of ourselves, we learn about things we previously didn’t know, we gain wisdom and enlightenment, and most importantly, we heal. Reading can diminish pain and it can also establish long-time relationships. In her debut novel, Sara Nisha Adams captured the power of reading and how it can transform not only individuals but also communities.

“The library books were stacked on her bedside table. Her final library reading list. They were all her favorite books, the books she had grown up with, the books that had found her at the right time, that had diven her comfort whe she needed it, had given her an escape, an opportunity to live beyond her life, an opportunity to love more powerfully, a chance to open up and let people in. And now she read them all once more, for the very last time.”

~ Sara Nisha Adams, The Reading List
Ratings

71%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

The Reading List was a powerful debut. Sure it had its flaws – the story was predictable and the writing was a little mundane for my taste – but it also had its bright spots. For the sheer weight of the ambition alone, the book shone through. I was in awe as the story reminded me of my experiences reading the books on the reading list although I found the exploration of the books uneven, i.e. some were explored in-depth while some were cursorily tackled. Nevertheless, The Reading List was a good book to kickstart my 2022 reading journey. I also liked the fact that there was a generation gap because it reminded us that we can pick up reading habits at any point in our lives. Me, for instance. I used to read different magazines and publications during my pre-teen and early teen years. However, I kept myself from reading works of fiction. It was only when I was fifteen years old that I started immersing myself in works of fiction.

Book Specs

Author: Sara Nisha Adams
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 368
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

An unforgettable and heartwarming debut about a chance encounter and a list of library books that forges unexpected connections between readers. A love letter to some of our most cherished novels…

Widower Mukesh lives a quiet life in West London, where he shops every Wednesday, goes to temple, and worries about his granddaughter Priya, who hides in her room reading while he spends his evenings watching nature documentaries.

Aleisha is a bright but anxious teenager working at the local library when she discovers a slip of paper in the back of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a list of novels she’s never heard of before. Intrigued, she impulsively decides to read every book on the list, one after the other. As each story gives up its magic, the books transport Aleisha away from the painful realities she’s facing at home.

When Mukesh arrives at the library desperate to forge a connection with his bookworm granddaughter, Aleisha wonders if the books might be a lifeline for him too. So begins a new chapter for both of them, as the reading list creates a bond between two lonely souls and even circulates throughout their community, its impact widening as readers learn how fiction can teach them so much about joy and sorrow and real life…

About the Author

Sara Nisha Adams was born in Hertfordshire, England to Indian and English parents. In 2014, she completed her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at the University of Cambridge where she won the Bloomsbury Prize for English. Post university graduation, Adams worked as an editorial assistant and editor in various companies. She is currently working as a part-time editorial director for fiction at Hodder and Stoughton. In 2021, she made her literary debut with the publication of her first novel, The Reading List. The book was partly inspired by her grandfather, who lived in Wembley and who found a connection with his granddaughter through books.

Adams is currently residing in London.