"Mother once said I'd marry a quarryman. She looked at me as we washed clothes in the giant steel washtub, two pairs of water-wrinkled hands scrubbing and soaking other people's laundry. We were elbow deep in dirty suds and our fingers brushed under the foamy mounds.
"Some mistakes are bound to be repeated," she murmured."
But the main character, Adele Pietra, in the novel, On Borrowed Wings, does anything but live out her mother's mistakes. She is a young woman determined to blaze her own path through the gender and societal conventions of her time, class, and circumstances. When an accident kills her father and brother, it is up to Adele to elevate her mother and herself. While the mother insists this will come only from marrying reasonably well, Adele has bold ideas of her own. It is Adele's unwavering faith in her own dreams and possibilities that makes Chandra Prasad's novel a compelling and memorable read.
Set in an insular Connecticut town and 1930's Yale, the backdrop of On Borrowed Wings has clearly been well-researched and carefully drawn. In an interview with CTcentral.com, Prasad notes how her own years of study at Yale (which only admitted women students as undergrads in 1969) inspired her to write this book, "I got to thinking, what if a young woman before that time really wanted to go — what were her options, and this got me thinking on the gender disguise issue," said Prasad, noting that an additional inspiration for her novel was the Stony Creek granite featured in many places around the Yale campus and in New Haven as well." She manages to set up her plot and narrative carefully enough that the issues of gender and feminism are not overly melodramatic or sermonizing, but still illustrate the importance of educational equality. With her mother's help, Adele disguises herself as her late brother, Charles, and takes his place in Yale's freshman class.
The novel also illustrates the tension between the mother-daughter relationship, and raises the subjects of class and racism when Adele lands in an independent study with a professor who seeks to prove that immigrant families are of a sub-par intelligence and morality through his research. On Borrowed Wings is an ambitious novel, weaving together history, gender, and coming-of-age narrative threads, while maintaining an accessible charm to keep readers turning the pages just to see if things will all work out for the daring protagonist.
Adele's struggle to find her place and her identity lands her in a group of boys, each grappling with his own conflicts highlighted by the time-period, including those of anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and class. When she finds herself falling for one of them, the pressure escalates and threatens to expose her hidden femininity and destroy her chances for earning her degree. If this wasn't enough, Adele's mother, who was initially a reluctant accomplice in Adele's concealment, decides that she no longer wants her to pursue her academic career and attempts to blackmail Adele into adhering to her wishes. Still, with her customary bravery and determination, she manages to follow her heart and her own path--at any cost.
On Borrowed Wings is a fable of love, confidence, and fearlessness...and a call to remember our own aspirations and dare to find out "how the world looks on high".