Which one comes first to a writer, the theme or the story? I always imagine it's the story that is born first; the theme is embedded almost subconsciously by the storyteller. However, is that always the case? And when it isn't, does that impact the quality of the end product, be it a short story, a novel, or a drama?
Divakaruni's novel "Sister of my Heart" may be a good case study. I started reading this novel with a very definitive set of expectations: it would have a page turning quality, a unique setting, some very plausible characterization, and an element of surprise. Divakaruni delivered on all of those expectation but with somewhat of an effort and delivered only to a degree. She spun an engrossing story about two close but very different cousins, who are born and raised in Kolkata, the setting of the story, and they make some baffling choices and live out the consequences of those choices in the stranglehold of familial pressures in a caste and gender biased society.
I started reading the novel one afternoon and finished it in two sittings. However, even as I was a third of the way into the novel, I already knew what to expect! There was an underlying desperation on the part of the writer to make the characters fit into the bigger storyline, and sadly it was evident at times. For example, when Sudha sacrifices her love, Ashoka, and consents to an arranged marriage after she overhears her cousin's to-be mother-in-law's threatening stance on families who violate social norms. The scene was so obviously coined to fit in! With one deliberate stroke the author simultaneously makes Sudha and Anju victims of a caste-based and patriarchal society. What follows is that which is expected. One of the victims then picks up on Ms. Divakaruni's other pet theme, the quest for the American dream, and moves to the United States, the land of freedom where she pursues a college education and even finds herself a part time job, the latter, obviously, without her husband knowing.
Having read several of Divakaruni's novels, and as a fan of her writings, I was let down by this one.