The Story Hour

By Thrity Umrigar

(Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in India and educated there and in Ohio at Ohio State University and Kent State University, Thrity Umrigar is both a journalist and an author, whose five previous novels are The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time. She also wrote a memoir, First Darling of the Morning. As a journalist, she has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Huffington Post and other newspapers. Her awards include a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard and the 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize. Umrigar is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University and lives in Cleveland.

What is this book about?

A psychologist, who knows that it goes against professional ethics to befriend a patient, nevertheless finds herself so caught up in one woman’s problems that they do become close, and that closeness brings with it both good and bad results. That basic outline may sound like a dry case study in the dangers of attachments, but in Umrigar’s capable hands, it is a very moving, human story.

Maggie, a black woman married to an Indian man, is the doctor. Lakshmi, an Indian woman trapped in a bleak arranged marriage, is the suicidal patient. As they become friends they let down barriers, and while the openness and caring are truly therapeutic for Lakshmi, they risk setting up expectations that perhaps are unrealistic, as it turns out that the doctor has some secrets of her own that shock the patient and vice versa. Can forgiveness and willingness to honor second chances win out when the foundations of a relationship are shaken?

Why you’ll like it:

Umrigar makes a strong case here for human compassion and connectedness, for the power of genuine friendship to enlarge the people involved and for the realization that reaching out can sometimes result in painful choices. You will learn from it, and, according to what Umrigar told an NPR interviewer, so did she:

“What happened to me in the course of writing this book is that I came to a new understanding of what the stock therapy model actually means. And it made me realize that it’s really a tribute to the act of storytelling — that it is in telling different stories about ourselves one central narrative emerges, and once that happens, there is potential then to play with that narrative and change it, and that is how personal transformation can perhaps begin to occur, which, of course, is the ultimate goal of therapy. And I do believe there is something extremely valuable and cathartic about telling each other our life stories.”

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “The sixth novel from Umrigar is a deeply moving portrait of connection, disconnection, and missed connections set in an unnamed Northeastern university city. Maggie Bose is a black psychologist married to an Indian man; when an Indian woman, Lakshmi, is admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt, Maggie is assigned the case. She understands the woman’s sense of isolation, and offers to treat her pro bono. Lakshmi is lonely, married to a man who doesn’t love her, and she works without pay in his grocery store and restaurant. Maggie tries to befriend Lakshmi by telling her stories about her life. When Lakshmi brings food as thanks, Maggie and her husband encourage the patient to accept catering jobs in order to earn her own money. Soon, the lines blur between patient and friend. A secret from Lakshmi’s past and the impulsive action that follows her discovery of Maggie’s affair change their lives. Although Umrigar is sometimes heavy-handed, this compassionate and memorable novel is remarkable for the depth and complexity of its characters.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Maggie is normally very careful to maintain professional boundaries in her clinical practice. Yet when she begins treating Lakshmi, a young Indian woman who has been hospitalized after attempting suicide, the woman’s loneliness strikes a chord in the African American psychologist, and Maggie realizes that what she needs more than therapy is a friend.

“What starts out as a project of sorts for Maggie to get Lakshmi to value her own worth develops into a true friendship. The narrative alternates by chapter between the two women as a bond between them develops despite cultural and educational differences – that is, until a revealed secret threatens to destroy how they view each other. Critically acclaimed Indian American writer Umrigar’s most recent novel explores cross-cultural friendships, troubled marriages, love, loss, and forgiveness with her characteristic wisdom, humor, and warmth. VERDICT This satisfying, psychologically complex story will appeal to a wide range of readers. Because its characters are both smart and likable without being sentimental or idealized, it may appeal to the chick lit crowd as much as to readers who enjoy multicultural literary fiction.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Umrigar’s novel begins as a small domestic drama and develops into a forceful examination of identity, cultural isolation and the power of storytelling. When Dr. Maggie Bose first meets Lakshmi after the young woman’s suicide attempt, she can already guess at Lakshmi’s story—abusive husband, familial separation, cultural isolation—a life in America that is so like those of the many other immigrant women she’s treated. They begin weekly therapy sessions, though Lakshmi seems unaware of the purpose—are they not new friends, simply sharing their stories? Lakshmi’s tales of her Indian village, of the time she saved the landowner’s son, her care for the village elephant, her pride at a hard-won education, are shadowed by her current life in a cold Midwestern college town. Her husband treats her with contempt, demands she work long hours at his restaurant and, perhaps worse, forbids contact with her family in India. Maggie suspects Lakshmi is less in need of psychotherapy than autonomy. Maggie and her husband, Sudhir (an Indian math professor, a fact that delights Lakshmi), begin promoting her as a caterer to their friends. Maggie teaches her to drive. Lakshmi’s independence even improves her marriage. And then Lakshmi tells Maggie a story that rewrites her whole narrative; she did a shocking thing, and for these six years in America, she has been the villain and her husband, the victim. Maggie is now repelled, though she has her own secrets. Despite 30 years of happy marriage to Sudhir, she is having a reckless affair. When Lakshmi finds out, this destroys the story of Maggie and Sudhir’s enviable marriage, and so Lakshmi takes revenge. The novel begins with a suicide attempt and ends with the regenerating possibilities of storytelling as a means of healing, of shaping identity, of endlessly re-creating the world. An impressive writer, Umrigar delivers another smart, compulsively readable work. “

Says the Boston Globe: “A taut, suspenseful page-turner with depth, heart, and psychological credibility whose believable and enduring characters ponder the meaning of friendship, the challenges of marriage, and the value of storytelling itself.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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