Disclaimer: rachelmanija is a friend of mine, and I like her quite a lot. That said, am trying to be as unbiased as possible.
Brown's parents dragged her from LA to Ahmednagar, a very small, very isolated ashram dedicated to Meher Baba in India, when she was seven. Unfortunately, Manija (Brown later changed her name) was the only foreign child in the town, in her school, and in the ashram.
I spent most of the book having a reaction that was a combination of laughing hysterically and thinking "Oh my god! No way!" Brown's childhood is distinctly bizarre -- despite the fact that her parents are Baba-lovers and that her family is ethnically Jewish, she ends up going to the Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Savior school, convent-run. There, the kids pelt her with rocks while she practically fails every class because she doesn't understand Hindi.
At home in the ashram, the residents include the librarian who screams outside her window at night, the supposedly holy man who wanders about collecting pieces of nothing, and assorted other strange characters.
There are some places where the pace is sort of off or odd; some of the funny stories feel a little misplaced or like they're dangling there without a point. The interludes to Brown's present life remind me of the interludes in Marya Hornbacher's memoir, but they don't blend in quite as well because of the difference in prose style (Hornbacher's book blends the past and present much more often).
These are nitpicks though. It's difficult to believe that everything in the book is non-fiction, not because I think Brown is exaggerating, but because it is such a different, bizarre and harrowing experience.
Much of the book is hilarious, and the book would be worth reading if only for the great stories. But underneath the anecdotes, Brown also writes about the nature of faith and religion while wondering how her parents could have moved halfway around the world to an isolated ashram. Also, about two-thirds of the way through the book, the anecdotes change so that they become horrifying in their cruelty, instead of horrifically funny. Brown isn't the one who is cruel, but the casual cruelty of nature, of the nuns who run her school, of the children and even some of the ashram residents is stunning.
Sort of spoilers start here!
Then Brown writes about her near suicide attempt when she was twelve or so, which is so wrong and painful and heartbreaking. And she writes about what saves her, what makes her keep going, and I just wanted to hug her.
I'm amazed that she made it through those five years in India and that she manages to write about it with grace and humor. And the little notes in the end on how she used to berate herself for not being a warrior like the ones she admired in stories but finally realized that maybe just enduring and making her way out was a triumph were pitch perfect.
There is such a sense of strength in this book, not just of endurance, and a sense that Brown grew up to be the kind of person who could turn her horrible childhood into that strength.
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