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  • Ninay Desai

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

In this debut novel set in Wembley, a suburb in London, we meet a teenage librarian performing her summer job duties half-heartedly and an elderly widower who keeps his distance from books. Not the kind of people who run in the same circles, and certainly, not the sort who would have anything in common. Also, lost and found between the pages of a library book, is the List– a catalogue of eight novels with no obvious similarities- written out for no one in particular just in case they need it. For reasons of their own, the protagonists, Aleisha and Mukesh start reading the novels on the list, forming an unexpected bond with books and each other.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams sit atop a pile of books on a round glass table. A bowl of fruits lies close by. Under the glass top of the table are small potted plants. Photo by Ninay Desai

The Reading List is divided into nine parts – one for each of the books on the list but starting with The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which is not on the list. I can only assume that the author, Sara Nisha Adams wants her readers to perceive the themes that her novel shares with The Time Traveller’s Wife - love, loss and being able to communicate across windows of time. While Niffenegger’s novel carried more concrete and obvious instances of time travel, The Reading List is more about how the list which was composed in 2017 affects the lives of people even in 2019. And then, there are books – the most efficient, cost-effective and ubiquitous manifestation of time travel, in my opinion.

The books on the list are ones that most readers would have read or watched a film/series adaptation of, making it easier for us to connect to how the protagonists are affected by them. Also, quite often we can see a mirroring of circumstance between the books and the real lives of the protagonists even if the literal events in the lives of Aleisha and Mukesh are quite different. Adams taps into the tendency of most readers to relate books and characters to their own lives. We’ve all done it though I found it a tad melodramatic for Mukesh to imagine characters from the books he reads following him around Wembley.

Both Aleisha and Mukesh gain depth and the reader’s sympathy as the novel progresses, given the challenges in their lives and their efforts to make the most of them by opening themselves up to change. However, Aleisha’s mother’s illness is left unexplained from start to finish and its lack of specificity makes it seem unreal and like something that exists only to further the plot. The secondary characters all seem one-dimensional including Aidan, Aleisha’s long-suffering older brother on whom falls the weight of crushed dreams and growing up before his time. His motivations and desires, which must be powerful given his actions, are ignored and frankly, I found the novel the poorer for it. Aidan is the character I was rooting for, even more than the protagonists and was disappointed with him being treated as a cardboard cut-out and a plot point.

Loneliness is the primary theme explored in The Reading List with almost every character experiencing it. And quite often, it is death or the breakdown of human relationships that is the reason for this loneliness but the author also nods in the direction of technology as being a cause of the alienation we feel, whether in the form of cell phones that have replaced conversation or automatic doors that keep people out if they can’t figure out how to work them. The antidote in the novel to this isolation is genuine human connection that can only be achieved by stepping out of one’s comfort zone and limiting belief systems. Another related idea is how little we know even the people we know and how every person carries within them a whole world of experiences, fears, hopes and insecurities.

In terms of style, The Reading List is functional but brings nothing that would make it stand out. Even the characters turn out to be what you'd expect them to be. No major surprises there.

Through the length of the novel, the identity of the unknown list-maker is pegged as a mystery and is fairly easy to work out. Though I didn’t mind the predictability as much as I did the book’s excessive dependence on serendipity, especially when it came to a letter written by the unknown list-maker to reach out to someone that they could have delivered this final communique to, in a much more direct and sure-fire fashion. That's my two cents on The Reading List. Now it’s up to you whether or not you put this book on your list.

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Sep 03, 2023

Thank you for your honest and thoughtful review of "The Reading List." Your insights into the themes of loneliness and human connection add depth to the discussion. Much appreciated! 📖👏

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
Sep 04, 2023
Replying to

Thanks, Portia! Loneliness is a somewhat ignored epidemic of our times. I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

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