Dear Shilpa – I writes. Belief me when I say not single day pass in six years that I not thought of you. How are you, my dearest?”
When I first began reading The Story Hour, I am a little stunned. It opens with those words above and continues in this broken English for as long as we stay in Lakshimi’s narrative. At first I think, I cannot keep reading this. The former sub-editor in me keeps wanting to correct the language! But Lakshimi grows on me, and as her life story is revealed, my issues with her language fade into the background. And then there is the fact that this is a book written by Thrity Umrigar, whose The Space Between Us I adored. And whose books I am happy to devour.
Lakshimi is a recent immigrant from India. Isolated, cut off from her family, she is sad and lonely and friendless. She has no one except her husband and he doesn’t even treat her like a person (his pet name for her is “stupid”). When a customer of their restaurant, the only one who bothered to know her name, to ask her how she is, tells her he is leaving for California, Lakshimi breaks down and tries to kill herself.
Maggie, a psychologist, is assigned to Lakshimi at the hospital. She reckons it’s because her boss knows that she too is married to an Indian man:
“Did white people presume some primal solidarity between all people of color? Would Cummings be disappointed if she and the patient weren’t soon bonding over cups of tea and trading recipes for samosas while watching Bollywood videos?”
Moved by her situation and identifying with Lakshimi as they both lost their mothers at a young age, Maggie begins to treat Lakshimi at her home office for free and despite her reservations, despite the protocols of Maggie’s profession, they become friends.
Of course it’s not all happy-go-lucky, for they have conflicting expectations of their relationship. And when Maggie learns of Lakshimi’s long buried secret, it shakes their bond, and forces decisions that will change their lives.
The switch between narratives can be jarring. Lakshimi’s broken English reflects not just what she says but also her thoughts. That puzzles me at first as I wonder why the voice in her head would sound that way. But I guess Umrigar wants to keep it constant, so that we reflect on the contrast between the lives of these two women. And it is vast.
It’s not just a cultural and class divide. Maggie reveals everything to us. We feel her fears and worries, stress and unhappiness. We hear her joy and laughter, which sadly is a lot less often. Lakshimi, on the other hand, hides her history and holds tight to her secrets and her story is only gradually revealed to the reader, despite the first person narrative. As a result, we are as shocked as Maggie by her revelations.
It’s effective and affecting. Umrigar’s characters get under the reader’s skin, so real and involved are you in their lives, whether they are likeable or not, that you feel for them.
The Story Hour is a reflection on the little things, on the stories that are told, the relationships between husbands and wives and friends, and their willingness to forgive.
Thrity Umrigar is the author of five other novels—The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time—and the memoir First Darling of the Morning. An award-winning journalist, she has been a contributor to the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Huffington Post, among other publications. She is the winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard, the 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Seth Rosenberg Prize. A professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, she lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
I received this book for review from its publisher and TLC Book Tours
Check out the other stops on the tour
Tuesday, August 19th: Jorie Loves a Story
Wednesday, August 20th: Booksie’s Blog
Thursday, August 21st: Bibliosue
Friday, August 22nd: BookNAround
Monday, August 25th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, August 26th: Mom’s Small Victories
Wednesday, August 27th: Books on the Table
Thursday, August 28th: Book Addiction
Monday, September 1st: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Tuesday, September 2nd: Olduvai Reads
Wednesday, September 3rd: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Sunday, September 7th: Book Snob
Monday, September 8th: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, September 9th: BoundbyWords
Friday, September 12th: Silver’s Reviews
Monday, September 15th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Tuesday, September 16th: Read Lately
Friday, September 19th: Everyday I Write the Book