The Story Hour
Thrity Umrigar
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The Story Hour
Thrity Umrigar
336 pages
August 2014
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Recently arrived from India and married to a man who calls her “stupid” as a joke, Lakshmi is overwhelmed by America and by the weight of her past, unable to let go of her family history: a father who refused to let her marry, a mother who died a painful death, and a sister who has disappeared, her whereabouts unknown. Lakshmi has never known romantic love, so it’s not surprising she’s drawn to a man called Bobby, an “all American white boy” who tells her he’s moving to California then hugs her before saying goodbye.

Only Lakshmi is aware of the more serious implications of Bobby’s departure. In desperation she tries to commit suicide, fed-up with her life of servitude to a man who has little time for her and treats her like an indentured servant. Enter psychologist Maggie, who offers to treat Lakshmi though a series of free therapy sessions. Lakshmi is initially hesitant, frightened by this “black woman who has come her to make her scared and to punish her for trying suicide.”

With tears in her eyes., Lakshmi quietly comes around, no longer “a wicked woman.” Maggie tells her she’s not wicked, just in pain and that her husband has no right to be so angry and so mean. Maggie, meanwhile, prides herself on her ability to maintain the wall of separation between home and hospital. For years, she has worked hard to build her career, and (on the surface at least) she’s happily married to steadfast Sudhir, her Indian husband who seems so like the stereotypical bourgeois white middle-class male.

Lately, however, Maggie’s confidence in her ability to keep her boundaries is failing, She’d like to quit her hospital job and focus on her private practice, but she remains haunted by her father, Wallace, and the dark, confusing memories of what he did to her. There’s so much pain and so many secrets. Maggie also feels burdened by the weight of other people, their grief and trust, and their blinking anticipation, and by Peter Weiss, a devil-may-care, world-traveling photographer for National Geographic who threatens to derail Maggie’s marriage to dependable, loyal Sudhir.

From the outset, Maggie knows her treatment of Lakshmi will be unorthodox, since the very concept of therapy is unfamiliar to this seemingly uneducated, working-class Indian woman. At first she thinks they’re quite similar (Lakshmi is bright and quick to learn), and Maggie is struck by how much they have in common: their marriages to Indian men and the early death of their mothers. Maggie has grown up in Brooklyn where most of the middle-aged black women worked as domestics in the homes of the rich. But when Lakshmi visits Maggie’s salubrious suburban house with offerings of exotically cooked food, telling her new friend tenderhearted stories about her childhood in India, Maggie begins to pulse with an awareness of their differences rather than their similarities.

Because this is a Thrity Umrigar novel, devastating secrets lie buried until the two protagonists find themselves thrust into a series of contretemps that force them to question their lives so far. Their easy connection soon disappears, and neither can unravel the sentimental knots created by a terrible betrayal. Meanwhile, every emotion is exaggerated and every action is melodramatic—desperate love, mad obsessions, and outbursts of jealous rage. In forming a connection with Lakshimi, Maggie has perhaps inadvertently mistaken sympathy for affection, and pity for friendship.

Although I found Lakshmi’s fractured, pidgin-English first-person voice a bit hard to take, Umrigar’s engaging style always evokes the warmth and acceptance of friendship and family. The author is to be commended for her preoccupation with the complicated nature of human relationships. Beset by betrayal, lies, and heartbreak (and much melodrama), there’s a real generosity between Maggie and Lakshmi, even when they find themselves blinded by their own self-centered ideologies and personal motivations.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2014

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