I finished Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings nearly a month ago, and so the details are beginning to get vague, but I did want to write at least a few words about the book before putting it away. I picked it up in the bookstore because I was in the mood for something easy and fun and comforting, and I remembered the title from Danielle’s very positive review. It served the purpose nicely; it was an entertaining read that was also smart and thought-provoking. It did just what comfort reading should do — comfort, without making me cringe at bad writing.
I was drawn to the book for another reason as well — it takes place in my state, Connecticut, and it’s about undergraduate life at Yale, and I always enjoy reading books about academic life, whether from a student’s or a professor’s perspective. The book also has cross-dressing and lots of feminism — two more points in its favor.
It tells the story of Adele Pietra, a young woman in a small mining town outside New Haven. It’s the 1930s, and life is difficult for the working-class people in Adele’s town, Stony Creek, and it’s particularly difficult for a smart young woman whose best opportunity in life seems to be marriage to someone she barely knows. Adele loves to read and study, but it’s her brother Charles whose education everyone cares about. His mother is helping him prepare to apply to Yale, a possibility that seems like a long-shot, but one his mother has pinned all her hopes on.
All future plans are destroyed, however, when Charlie and his father are killed in a mining accident. Adele and her mother mourn their loss, but when Charlie’s acceptance letter from Yale arrives, it occurs to Adele that she just might be able to seize an opportunity and make something incredible happen. Women were not admitted to Yale at that time, but Adele decides that she’s going to go anyway — by dressing as a man and taking her brother’s place.
And so begins an adventure. Adele has many obstacles standing in her way — not only must she dress and talk and act like a man, but she has little idea how to behave in a setting that is entirely new to her. As a working-class, small-town girl, she has had little exposure to the big city and to the privilege and comfort of life in a prestigious university. The scenes describing Adele’s arrival in New Haven and her first weeks on campus are suspenseful ones, as she has to figure out how to deal with unexpected problems such as the swim test all freshmen are supposed to pass. How can she take a swim test without revealing her secret?
Fortunately, she runs into another new student who is just as bewildered by his new surroundings, and through him, she manages to make a group of friends, and she also does well in her classes and manages to find a job and she even makes friends with a working-class family in the city.
She manages to do pretty well for herself, but the question always remains — how long can she keep her secret?
It’s fun to watch Adele live a life she never expected she could and do things nobody believed a woman should be able to do. Prasad does a good job making this fantasy believable and resolving the suspenseful situation she created. All in all, it’s a satisfying book.