Published by Harper
Publication date: August 19th 2014
When it comes to the workings of the human heart there are few who tell tales so consistently unexpected and with such depth as Thrity Umrigar. Her newest novel, The Story Hour, is about the lonely Lakshmi and Maggie, the psychologist assigned to work with her after she tries to kill herself. Lakshmi came from India six years ago with her arranged-marriage husband. Her life is restricted to working in his restaurant and store, her loneliness so great she decides to take her life when her favorite customer moves away. Maggie is an unconventional therapist married to an Indian man, so it is decided that she try and talk to Lakshmi, who will not speak to anyone at the hospital. A relationship that begins with trepidation on both parts soon turns into something much more than either expected.
Despite an awkward beginning, Maggie is intrigued and when Lakshmi does begin to open up she agrees to see her for free. This is the first subtle erasing of the boundary between doctor and patient and as the two women spend more time together it fades even more with each woman nurturing the other in her own way. Maggie empowers Lakshmi by teaching her ways to assert herself with her husband and to expand the skills she already has to create her own goals. Lakshmi takes care of Maggie and her husband (whom she sees as too busy and important to have to cook) by bringing them freshly prepared meals once a week. Umrigar gives both characters a wealth of back story but it is the simple Lakshmi who turns out to be anything but and commands the most attention. In her Umrigar creates a wonderfully nuanced character who begins as semi-literate but with untapped intelligence and ends with her having her own business, driving a car and flying cross country by herself. And yet, when hurt, like a child, she seeks only to inflict more hurt.
In The Story Hour Umrigar is revisiting the sensitive territory of boundaries she explored in The Space Between Us (one of my favorite novels). In that novel it was class lines but in The Story Hour it is something more intangible. Maggie is a well-educated professional who cannot begin to imagine life in Lakshmi’s world nor ever fully understand its impact on shaping who she is. Lakshmi has no experience outside of her life in India and does not understand the intricacies of social relationships, so she wants to see Maggie as her best friend. The way each is presented is the result of experiences they themselves do not even recognize in their ability to shape their actions. It is this undercurrent, generated through Umrigar’s insightful prose, which makes the resulting actions almost inconceivable. When the end begins, it is shocking and tears apart the comforting world both have come to cherish.
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