A Novel Concept

Doing ‘Our Best’ Right Here in Westchester

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By Michael Malone

Of all the ways a book can end up in your hands.

You spot it in the bookstore, or you hear about it on a podcast and order it, or you read a favorable review and grab it from the library.

Or your doctor slips it to you during your appointment.

The last one was a new one for me, but it happened. My doctor asked me about my line of work. I told him I write a bit, and he mentioned his daughter’s novel.

Moments later, the proud papa handed me an autographed copy.

And so I dove into “Our Best Intentions,” by Vibhuti Jain.

The book is set in Westchester, in a fictional river town known as Kitchewan. It is the story of a father and daughter struggling to get by in a wealthy town. Babur Singh is from India and goes by Bobby. He runs a modest driving service, he and a few employees transporting well-to-do people to the airport. He also moonlights with Uber.

Bobby’s daughter is Angela. She too went through a name change to better fit in in the U.S., her given name being Anjali. She’s a high school student and a gifted swimmer.

Her mother split when she was six. Bobby could not mind Anjali full-time due to work, so he found an after-school swim program for her. She turned out to be quite adept in the water.

Angela is walking across the high school campus after swim practice one day when she stumbles upon something terrifying. Henry McCleary, older brother of her best friend Sam, lies in the football field with a knife in his stomach.

Turns out Henry and his knucklehead pal were trying to buy marijuana from Chiara, a Black girl who is new to the school. The deal breaks bad, Henry gets stabbed and Chiara disappears.

Parents are freaking out and the cops are all over a rare violent crime in their sleepy town. Angie is the closest thing to a witness. Chiara didn’t have friends in her new school, but she and Angie knew each other a bit, Angie teaching her to swim so Chiara could pass her gym class.

Angie suspects the Black girl is not getting fair treatment, and believes she was not one to commit a violent act – at least without being pushed to do so.

Angie, by nature, likes being in the background. But suddenly everyone is clamoring to speak with her – Henry’s parents, their cheesy lawyer, school principal Mabel, the police.

Departing the school after a meeting with all of the above, Jain writes, “She couldn’t think. There were too many people in the room. Too many unsynchronized breaths, too much scribbling on notepads, too many throats being cleared in anticipation. Each sound had echoed in Angie’s ear canal, derailing her train of thought. There were also the stares. Everyone in the room had looked at her with wide eyes, with concern, or pity, or maybe fear in their faces. Like she was a live wire that could spark at any time and set the whole place on fire, or worse, a caged wild animal, erratic and unpredictable.”

“Our Best Intentions” is an intriguing novel. Bobby and Angie are good, compelling characters, meticulously drawn with lots of captivating details. Bobby adores his daughter and everything in his world is painstakingly plotted out – from their nightly dinner to Angie eventually going to college. Angie experiences on a daily basis the challenge of fitting in as a person of color in a way-white town. Jain describes their modest townhouse and neighborhood: “The house is in northeast Kitchewan, closer to the town’s lesser-known namesake river than to the banks of the glittering Hudson, which borders the town’s ‘ritzier’ neighborhoods to the west.”

When one of Bobby’s drivers crashes a company car, the family’s finances are such that Bobby must get a job working the register at the local convenience store, selling cigarettes and Slurpees to Angie’s classmates, which she of course finds humiliating.

Just as Chiara disappears in Kitchewan, the reader does not hear from her for a long while after the stabbing, though the reader hears plenty about her. When Chiara does return to the narrative, in an account of what happened right after the incident, it is engaging and even heartbreaking.

A lively subplot relates to Chiara, who ran away from her neglectful home in Philly to stay with her aunt in Westchester, not being properly enrolled in the school. Principal Mabel is a Black woman, and the wealthy white parents and their attorneys wonder if the principal didn’t exactly play by the rules in allowing Chiara to attend.

A second subplot sees Angie’s mother reach out about finally reconnecting with her daughter, which brings an even higher level of stress to Angie, and to Bobby.

“Our Best Intentions,” published last year, has a solid 3.69 rating, out of 5, on GoodReads, with over 2,500 people weighing in. The book was reviewed by The New York Times, an uncommon event for a debut novel. That review reads, “As readers, we are so often given feel-good stories of people surmounting the odds, of justice being wrangled back into the hands of those who deserve it. Instead of that, in a novel that will leave you aching – and thinking – Jain asks us to consider what a world might look like if justice really were for everyone, and any one of us could just ‘happen’ to be in the right place at the right time.”

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I found the title a bit underwhelming and not as invigorating as the story, which tackled timely issues related to race and delivered it all in an entertaining manner. Jain’s writing is quite good.

With degrees from Yale and Harvard, she lives in South Africa and works in international development.

Her father, as I mentioned, is a respected doctor. But if that doesn’t pan out, it seems he’d make a decent publicist.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 


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