I confess that it took me a long time to read On Borrowed Wings. I read two other books in between the time I started and finished it. I was impatient with its beginning, wanted to rush right into the meat and heart of the story instead of letting it slowly unfold. But as I read the last sentence, I had tears in my eyes and I turned immediately back to the first page to read the opening paragraphs again. I guess you could say it grew on me.
On Borrowed Wings is the story of Adele, the daugher of a small town Connecticut stonecutter who is attending her first year at depression era Yale disguised as a boy. Prasad uses all the drama inherent in that situation to good effect. There is so much to hide, so many ways she might get found out, that it's dizzying, and you find yourself terrified wondering whether she can pull it off. By the end of the book you are extremely gratified that she does -- and not always in the ways you might expect.
Not only must Adele hide her true female identity from everyone around her, but she must also hide from the one person with whom she shares her secret: her mother. Born to a wealthy family, her mother becomes estranged from them when she marries Adele's father. When he dies, along with Adele's brother Charlie in a quarry accient, she desperately concocts the scheme that sets Adele's adventures in motion and that she hopes will save her from the "granite wasteland" of their hometown. She is vain, proud, bitter and oddly sympathetic as she trades jewelry and other less tangible things in order to ensure that Adele's identity remains hidden. Although tightly bound by their plan, if not a deep love, everything becomes unraveled as Adele gains independence as a result of her new life as a student.
My favorite characters of the book are the three friends that Adele (as Charlie) spends her time with at Yale. Prasad captures perfectly both the air of excitement that the freshmen share at starting college and the playfully competitive dynamic between the four of them. These fellow classmantes not only teach Adele how to act like a boy, they provide a rich complement for the unfolding of the story and, not surprisingly, some drama of their own.
There were times in the book where I felt the presence of the author too keenly, and I felt like asking her to stand back a little to let me see the things that were happening without her getting too much in the way. But that is a small quibble. Especially in the midst of lines like this: "I loved the labyrinthian corridors, the toppling shelves climbing so high I felt closed in, lost yet also found," which is how Adele describes her love of the library's stacks.
I'm a sucker for coming of age stories, love watching how a self comes into being, and I especially love reading about women who defy the odds and make great sacrifices to get things - like an education - that we now take for granted. On Borrowed Wings satisfies on all counts, and throws in more than a couple of surprises to keep it lively. It's a story worth giving the room to grow in your heart, too.