Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Release date: February 7, 2012
Publisher: Random House
Format: eBook and paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5
Behind the Beautiful Forevers had a long gestational period with me. I began it in February 2013 on a work trip to India. I quickly became immersed, partly because the book reflected so much of what I was seeing in Mumbai—the dramatic inequality; the overcrowded, underserved slums; the breathtaking optimism of those we met. India is overpowering enough on its own, and so I put the book down partway through so that I didn’t become too overwhelmed.
That feeling of being swept up into a powerful, often depressing story stayed with me, and I didn’t return to the book again until more than a year had passed. I knew it would capture me again, and I wasn’t ready. In July of this year, I finally finished it and chose it for the nonfiction book club at One More Page. I’m very glad I did—we had a wonderful discussion. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is, in turns, painful, disgusting, gorgeous, and heart-wrenching—and always incredibly well-written.
Yet I waited again to review it—six months, in fact. It’s a book that resonated deeply in me, one that I would recommend to pretty much anyone—quite possibly the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read. One of the best books I’ve ever read, period.
Yeah. Sounds like a lot of hyperbole.
Part of me wanted to wait to see if the book would hold up—if I would still feel that way after the people and their stories had coursed through me, diluting with time. Part of me was so affected by Boo’s deep storytelling and by the lives of those she observed for five years, I wondered if I could possibly do it justice—how could I possibly offer any insight or opinion that hadn’t been expressed before?
But here’s my take anyway: Behind the Beautiful Forevers has changed the way I look at journalism—changed the very way that I want to tell stories. I admire Boo’s patience, her dedication, how immersed and thoughtful she seems to have been, so unwilling to accept common narratives, so determined to tell nuanced stories.
But more than the techniques of the journalist, I admire all of the times that Boo stepped back and allowed her subjects and their narratives to shine. That’s what truly great writers do. They remind us of the secret hopes we all nurture, and they show us how, at heart, we are all the same, all in different ways. They allow the characters to speak directly to us, without artifice or interruption.
That’s not hyperbole.
Quotes of Note:
Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.
It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged.
Asha believed a person seeking betterment should try as many schemes as possible, since it was hard to predict which one might work.
Sunil and Abdul sat together more often than before, but when they spoke, it was with the curious formality of people who shared the understanding that much of what was said did not matter, and that much of what mattered could not be said.
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