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BOOMTOWN GIRL by Shubha Sunder: a Review

Are you seeking a book that’s perfect for book club discussions — or to spur deep thoughts about the complexities of growing and connecting as a human? Look no further than the collection of short stories, Boomtown Girl, by Boston author, Shubha Sunder!

First, some background and a disclosure. Shubha is a dear friend of mine, ever since we became neighbors in Boston years ago. However, I assert that this glowing review is not biased — I truly loved this book — and the New York Times agrees, too, as does the Boston Globe!

By way of my credentials to write this review, I’ve been a secondary school English teacher for nearly two decades, helping select whole-class texts for curriculum, as well as individual books for students from grade 7 through 12. I’ve also been highly active in three local book clubs with adults, meaning I know what makes a good text to discuss! Now, on to the review…

Boomtown Girl by Shubha Sunder: a review.
Boomtown Girl by Shubha Sunder: a review.

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What is Boomtown Girl About?

There are nine short stories (comprising 166 pages in all) that make up Boomtown Girl. Every story is set in Bangalore, India, where Shubha Sunder grew up — right as the city was beginning to “boom” with commercial, infrastructural, and globalizing developments.

The stories’ protagonists range from middle-school aged girls and boys, to adults. Often there is an American visitor that pops into a story — be it in the form of a traveler, or a fast food chain. Though none of the characters overlap between stories, the collection feels cohesive because of its shared geography and repeating themes. What are those themes, exactly?

Themes in Boomtown Girl

1. The gray area between “good” and “bad.”

One thing that makes Boomtown Girl such a perfect book club discussion text is that nothing in its tales is black and white. Rather, there is a rich complexity of characters and situations that leaves the reader genuinely torn about whether the protagonist or moment is “good” or “bad” — and what YOU would have done, if placed in those shoes.

For example, in “The Western Tailor,” the reader feels highly sympathetic towards the protagonist — until the moment when he screams rudely at his wife, and we realize he’s got a nasty side, too. Does he deserve what happens, though? How does this relate to our own relationships and self-images? Much to discuss.

2. Divides between parental or societal expectations and children’s self-expression.

The first two stories, and several smattered later in the collection (including the titular one, “Boomtown Girl”), center around a pre-teen or teen child who is torn between the expectations of their parents, school, or society, and what they truly want and feel. These expectations are in the realms of physical appearance, studies, career choices, dating, and activities.

In many of the stories, the parents actively work to squash the truth and self-expression of the child, and that either leads to a rebellion (sometimes dangerous) by the child, or a surprising other series of events. As I’ll discuss in a later section regarding the age match for this book, many teens could relate to stories in the collection — but we adults surely can as well… and often the tales beg the question: how are we STILL reacting to pressures from our parents, and from society? What do we actually want for our lives? Is that possible to achieve without excessive danger?

3. Unwanted or forbidden romantic connections.

Nearly every story in Boomtown Girl features either unwanted romantic or physical advances, or sensual electricity between two parties who cannot be together due to culture, marriage, age, status, gender, or position. When I asked Shubha why this theme was so pervasive, she explained: “When I’m in America, I’m most conscious of being an immigrant. When I’m in India, I’m most conscious of being a woman.” This pervasive tension — and danger — around physical connection is a real one.

4. Allure and dangers of a rapidly changing city.

As the title of the book suggests, the theme of the transformation of Bangalore (or any global city) at the hands of globalization and “development” is a massive one. Much like the dangerous yet alluring interplay in the romantic interactions in the book, the changes in Bangalore also provide a dizzying mix of excitement and potential harm… even in the form of Pizza Hut!

5. Intercultural naiveté, fascination, and discovery.

This next theme has connections to the previous one. Several of the stories feature White American women who are spending time in India, and unwittingly cause explosive problems by missing nuances of the local situation. As someone who’s traveled extensively, myself, I related to several of the mistakes these women made, and appreciated the omniscient narrator’s window into the minds of the Indian men interacting with these female visitors.

Actual footage of me reading Boomtown Girl while at language school in Mexico!
Actual footage of me reading Boomtown Girl while at language school in Mexico!

Favorite Stories in the Collection

My two favorite stories in Boomtown Girl were “Final Exam,” and “The Western Tailor.” “Final Exam” plays on the theme of parental expectations versus children’s schooling and career desires — but takes the plot into an expected trajectory that shows the brilliance of the story’s title choice… and also provides ample discussion fodder.

“The Western Tailor” is an amazing interplay between Indian and Western forces that ends in a jaw-dropping fashion. (Pun intended with the word “fashion.”) As mentioned before, the characters are so complex that they merit hours of discussion.

Which Ages is this Book Appropriate For?

Boomtown Girl is a decidedly mature book, but as an educator and parent, I believe it could be a match for sophisticated 8th graders and older. In particular, high school teachers could consider using single stories as whole-class reads.

What about content warnings? Well, there are repeated threats of physical violence in Boomtown Girl, as well as some characters who do not survive. Though the Kirkus Review calls the collection a “gentle read,” I would disagree, as the stories are often taut with tension and characters placed in danger. That said, there is not graphic or overly explicit gore described, so I suppose the stories are indeed gentler than much 21st century fare.

Moreover, here’s an interesting tidbit: My 7 year old daughter knows Shubha well, so when she saw me reading the book, she asked me to summarize each story. Though I had to rephrase some parts for her tender young mind, I found the paraphrased plots and themes surprisingly engaging and resonant for my elementary-aged child. We ended up having excellent conversations about several of the moral dilemmas and character complexities in certain stories — thus proving once again that Boomtown Girl makes for book club gold.

Does "Boomtown Girl" seem like a book you want to read?
Does Boomtown Girl seem like a book you want to read?

Other Great Book Club Books

Liked Boomtown Girl, and seeking other quality book club recommendations now? Here are several.

In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström is the story of three very different Black women in Sweden — a story that’s not often told! The novel is compulsively readable (and quite spicy). My adult book club enjoyed it, and it was so well-received internationally that a new sequel is coming out soon!

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a Young Adult book which is also wonderful for adults looking for a creative and informative story around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 — and its intersections with today. The novel tackles a heavy subject in an engaging and narrative-driven way; it’s a hard to put the book down.

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds is a Middle Grades collection of short stories which all take place at the same school. I read it with my 7th grade students, and we found many fruitful topics to discuss in each story.

Though this is a book recommendation list, I can’t help but also suggest the podcast “Nice White Parents,” which follows the story of a school integration effort in New York City over the course of five episodes. It provides much food for thought for anyone navigating (or interested in) the American school system. If you prefer to read rather than listen, that article links to its transcript.

Boomtown Girl, by Shubha Sunder, in Review

I really enjoyed the book Boomtown Girl by Shubha Sunder, and highly recommend it for any book club. If you haven’t read it yet, does it seem like a match for you or students you work with? If you have read it, what were your thoughts? Do share!


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