Book Review: Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

11 Jul

Genre: Historical fiction, Young adult

Publisher: Penguin Group USA (Speak)

Pub date: 2008

Source: Personal


Set in India in 1940, Climbing the Stairs is the story of a young girl, Vidya whose biggest dream is to be allowed to go to college. During a peaceful protest march, her father is badly injured and Vidya’s life changes completely. Forced to live with her father’s extended family, she has to now get used to a totally different way of life and her choices dwindle.


I have very mixed feelings about this novel. While it does some things very well, I feel like overall it missed the mark to becoming great.

What I really liked was the way the backdrop of the Indian freedom struggle and World War II mesh easily and naturally with Vidya’s story. I liked this young girl – her thirst for knowledge, her non-conformist ideas and her ambition. Vidya’s father is a well-loved doctor who has broken away from his traditional upbringing. But when they go to live in her grandfather’s house with aunts and uncles who are stuck with their traditional ideas, the adjustment is a difficult one for Vidya to make. Here the men and women don’t meet except at mealtimes – this means that Vidya and her mother don’t see her father and brother Kitta too often. Struggling with this change in her lifestyle, afraid for her future and depressed by the guilt of being the cause for her father’s injury, Vidya has a lot to deal with.

And what first drew me in was Vidya’s stolen trips to a forbidden library – how can you not root for this girl who is determined to expand her world? This young girl’s determination, doubts, brush with romance, and ambition in spite of her family trying to stamp out any glimmer of individuality are what make this a terrific story.

While I loved the concept, I wasn’t thrilled with the execution. Some incidents and most of the characters didn’t strike me as realistic. I personally know of cruel people in that generation and culture. I’ve heard from my parents about cruel men and women who did many of the things that the people in this story do. But what doesn’t ring true is that all the people in the new house that Vidya and family enter are capricious and mean. And I especially didn’t like the romance angle and felt it was clumsily handled.

Read for a close look at life in a traditional Brahmin family in the 1940s and 50s. Unfortunately, many traditional homes still force women to live this cloistered life. So much has changed and yet nothing has changed for so many young girls.


Recommended for anyone who’s interested in Indian fiction set in the 1940s. While I loved the main character and her determination, I felt many of the other aspects fell a little flat.

Rating: 3.5*

*See my Rating policy

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4 Responses to “Book Review: Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman”

  1. bookspersonally July 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    Sounds like a great premise for a book – a shame some of the other elements didn’t work as well for you.


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