This March, William Morrow will publish Vibhuti Jain’s debut, Our Best Intentions, an emotionally charged novel about an Indian girl who becomes entangled in a criminal investigation in a wealthy Westchester County town. “The story navigates politics and judgment,” Jain says. “It explores prejudice and race, and forces this family to confront its own baggage.”
When Babur “Bobby” Singh moves his family to the suburbs, he’s promised “great schools, upscale people, and gorgeous river views,” Jain writes. “ ‘Kitchewan is where you want to be,’ their broker had told them, nodding with approval at the upwardly mobile young family: an earnest, clean-shaven husband..., a formerly slim (but softer post-baby) wife..., and an energetic young child with skin the color of burnt sugar and wispy curls of brown-black hair.”
Ten years later, the wife has left, and Angie, the daughter, is an introverted star swimmer at her high school. One afternoon she witnesses a transformative event: the stabbing of Henry McCleary, a popular white boy from a prominent family. Chiara Thompkins, a Black girl seen running from the scene, becomes the prime suspect, especially when the legitimacy of her attending Kitchewan high school is questioned.
“These issues fascinate me,” Jain says. “As does the stigma of mental illness in the immigrant community, where the important thing is economic stability. Mental health is not an issue; the issue is survival. Angie’s mother abandoning the family sheds light on this stigma.”
Jain tells me that she recently became a mother and “loves it, but it forced me to think about expectations. A mother’s leaving is more unusual than a father’s leaving. I wanted to flip the narrative and look at father-daughter relationships, which are underexplored.”
Jain writes of Angie’s impressions of her father: “Her dad didn’t quite get it. He’s proud of her, to be sure. He tells anyone who’ll listen... that she’s an ‘aquatic prodigy.’ But he doesn’t understand why she needs to spend money on training. He believes people make it by grinding it out.... He probably thinks this way, she’s decided, because he grew up in India. From her dad’s stories, India is a semi-magical place full of poor village people who somehow, against all odds, and without any help, invent a number or discover a planet with just ‘scratch paper and their eyes.’ ”
A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, Jain worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City and now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she is managing director for Africa for the U.S. International Finance Corporation. I have to ask—a novel?
“Everyone who writes a book has a desire to tell a story,” Jain says. “But I was at my parents’ house in 2018, writing for my wedding website, cutesy anecdotes like how my husband and I met. He was raving about my writing, which prompted my mother to pull out a box of my writing from years ago. My future husband was so complimentary and encouraging that it inspired me to start writing again. I had lost touch with that side of my life, so I made a resolution for 2019 and started with short stories; I took an online course and got back in the battle.”
The inspiration for Our Best Intentions came from a conversation Jain had with an Indian Uber driver, who told her about a violent event at his daughter’s nice Westchester public school and the fallout it caused. “He was suggesting that it was happening because poor people were invading the town and school,” Jain says. “He was adopting the narrative that minorities were causing the problem, and I started thinking how Indians don’t identify as minority. It triggered the plot in my head.”
In May 2019, Jain started the novel and had a draft by the end of the year. She spent 2020 reworking it, then sent out queries to agents. “Vib had multiple offers of representation,” her agent, Alexa Stark at Writers House, tells me. “But we signed her a couple of weeks after her cold query, in April 2021. I was struck by the voice and especially the relationship between Angie and her father, the tension of how he’s willing to stretch his morality to protect her and how far we’ll go to protect loved ones. Their interactions were so sweet and yet so heavy, and then at the heart of the book is this crime.”
After several rounds of edits, Our Best Intentions went out widely in January 2022. Morrow executive editor Liz Stein responded quickly and preempted North American rights in a six-figure deal a month later. “Alexa sent a great pitch,” Stein says. “She knows I like books that tackle real issues. The book hit the sweet spot for me between literary and commercial, a home run for book clubs.”
Stein also liked the multiple themes: parent-child relationships, belonging, homelessness. And she liked that Jain “tackled the story from multiple angles: the kaleidoscope view ramps up the tension.”
Stein had never heard of Jain but says she publishes a lot of debut authors. She was impressed that Jain was self-taught. She saw the hook of a domestic drama with a criminal investigation at its core. “It’s emotional yet has the pacing of a suspense novel with high-level writing,” Stein says, adding that she bought it after a phone conversation (“We had a lunch scheduled but I got Covid!”).
As for Jain, she was worried about getting an agent because everyone told her it was really difficult. “I got lucky,” she says, “and had immediate interest.” Jain chose Stark because she felt “she had balance,” adding, “She really liked the book and really knew the industry.”
And Stein? “I chose Liz because we shared a vision and every time she revises, she brings out the best in me. She made me reflect. But mostly, it was her enthusiasm that convinced me.”
And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the book's primary setting; it is Westchester, N.Y., not Connecticut.