In Fasting, Feasting Desai focuses on the children of a conservative, upper-middle-class Indian family living in a provincial town southwest of Bombay. Desai is as much interested in the family dynamics as in the effects of strict patriarchy on the next generation.
As the novel opens, husband and wife, who have become so much like one person that Uma refers to them as MamaPapa, sit on their favorite veranda swing. The place is symbolic for the static nature of their lives now that Papa has retired as a lawyer and his children are adults. Uma is there to serve them, even though she is forty-three, but unmarried. Here, such rituals of patriarchy are performed, as when Uma fetches an orange that Mama carefully peels, slices, and skins before handing each sliver to Papa.
In keeping with Desai’s desire to tell the truth in her fiction, even if it is painful, Uma is denied much possibility to develop. Through her flashbacks it is revealed that she was denied the opportunity to go to her beloved convent school when she was fifteen, and she was forced to return to her parents when she ran away to attend the school. Mama decided to arrange a marriage for her at age sixteen, but the prospective groom scandalized the family when he fell in love with her younger sister Aruna. Uma then joined her widowed aunt Mira-masi on a pilgrimage to a temple, where she longed to stay but was taken home again. In Mira-masi, the reader meets one of Desai’s wizened old women who have taken to spirituality as an act of defiance.
The next attempts to marry off Uma also were failures. The second fiancé’s family just took her dowry, and the third married Uma in a nightmare version of a traditional wedding and intended to enslave her as a second wife. For once, she was saved by Papa.
Uma’s fate is not the worst, as Desai shows through the other female characters around her. Beautiful, intelligent Anamika wins a scholarship to Oxford she is never allowed to accept because of her early marriage. Bullied by her mother-in-law, Anamika is most likely killed by her husband, who masks her death as suicide. Even Uma’s younger sister Aruna, who marries a successful man whom she dominates, is trapped by her desire for perfection. Happier alternatives are hinted at in women like Doctor Dutt and young Moyna, daughter of the neighbor Mrs. Joshi, who also has a career. However, the first part of the novel ends with the dispersal of Anamika’s ashes, witnessed by a grieving Uma.
The second part of the novel tells of Arun’s first summer holiday in Massachusetts, where he has gone to study. He is invited to stay with the Pattons, a suburban family. Critics have complained that the Pattons are a bit of a caricature. Mr. Patton is a steak-eating businessman who bosses his wife and children; Mrs. Patton is a closet vegetarian who seeks survival through evasion; daughter Melanie is anorexic; and son Rod is a passionate jogger and football player. At the end of the novel, formal closure is achieved as Arun gives a grateful Mrs. Patton the shawl and tea that his parents made Uma send him.
Fasting, Feasting works best when it focuses on the Indian family. Even though Uma and Mama can share a joke alone on the swing, the limits of Uma’s life imposed by patriarchy are painfully obvious. Desai’s look at America is deliberately that of an outsider like Arun, who sees irony in everyday life. Desai had planned to write a third, humorous part of the novel, telling of Arun’s return to India after graduation, but instead she published it as the short story “The Rooftop Dwellers” in her collection Diamond Dust: Stories.