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The Story Hour

     From the author whom the New York Times Book Review calls a “perceptive and . . . piercing writer,” comes a profound, heartbreakingly honest novel about friendship, family, secrets, forgiveness, and second chances.
     An experienced psychologist, Maggie carefully maintains emotional distance from her patients. But when she meets a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, Lakshmi is desperately lonely and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store.
     Moved by her plight, Maggie treats Lakshmi in her home office for free, quickly realizing that the despondent woman doesn’t need a shrink; she needs a friend. Determined to empower Lakshmi as a woman who feels valued in her own right, Maggie abandons protocol, and soon doctor and patient have become close friends.
     But while their relationship is deeply affectionate, it is also warped by conflicting expectations. When Maggie and Lakshmi open up and share long-buried secrets, the revelations will jeopardize their close bond, shake their faith in each other, and force them to confront painful choices.

R E V I E W S:

Boston Globe [read...]

In a recent interview about her latest novel, The Story Hour, Thrity Umrigar declared: "More than anything else I want to tell a story with integrity." The author of a memoir and five previous novels including the bestselling The World We Found, Umrigar has more than realized her ambition with The Story Hour, a taut, suspenseful page-turner with depth, heart, and psychological credibility whose believable and endearing characters ponder the meaning of friendship, the challenges of marriage, and the value of storytelling itself.

The novel's dual heroines, Lakshmi and Maggie, seemingly could not be more different. Lakshmi, an Indian immigrant in a miserable marriage (her husband's nickname for her is "stupid"), has swallowed a slew of pills after learning that a man she'd pined for (a customer at her husband's grocery store) is moving to California. Maggie is a black, upper-middle-class professional who's risen from a difficult childhood in a "rundown Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn" to become a successful psychologist with a seemingly idyllic marriage to a professor husband, Sudhir, who adores her. Separated by "education, language, nationality, race," they are divided also by role: Lakshmi as patient to Maggie's doctor.

Lakshmi is initially taciturn, even hostile toward Maggie (she shares some of her husband's toxic racism), and Maggie approaches Lakshmi with prejudices of her own. But the women quickly discover some striking points of connection: Both are married to Indian men and both lost their mothers at an early age. Both are outsiders struggling with feelings of guilt and shame. Moreover, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie, too, is hovering on the brink of infidelity.

Maggie has always been eminently "capable of detaching herself from her patients' problems" and has "prided herself on her ability to maintain the wall of separation between home and hospital." But drawn to Lakshmi out of both "pity" and identification, she allows the wall to crumble. First, she offers to treat indigent Lakshmi for free at her home office, then accepts gifts of homemade Indian food. And after Sudhir insists that "what Lakshmi needs is not analysis . . . [but] a job. Independence. Money of her own," Maggie hires her to cater a party and clean her house, then brokers other cooking and cleaning jobs.

The women's bond is mutually restorative: Lakshmi is profoundly grateful and quickly considers Maggie her best friend; Maggie cherishes the "vitality and wonder" that Lakshmi's colorful stories about her childhood in India and ingenuous warmth bring to her life.

Both women, however, live with the heavy weight of "confusing . . . [and] shameful" secrets. We learn Maggie's in the novel's opening pages: She was molested by her father and is embarking on an affair with Peter, a dashing photographer whose work in "war-torn or famine-struck" countries provides an alluring counterpoint to Sudhir's practicality. Lakshmi doesn't reveal her devastating secret until two-thirds of the way through the novel, and her "confession" threatens to overturn everything Maggie, and the reader, thought we knew about her. Is Lakshmi really the passive, helpless, innocent "victim," or is she devious, cunning, immoral?

Maggie, horrified and disoriented, is "unable to provide the absolution that Lakshmi" wants and can offer her "no words of consolation, or solidarity, or empathy." The fissure widens when Lakshmi discovers that the woman she'd idolized is betraying her devoted husband, leading her to enact a revenge that changes "the trajectory of [Maggie's] life . . . forever." As Lakshmi's life improves, Maggie's falls apart; the reversal is deftly handled, and our dual sympathies maintained.

The Story Hour is told in alternating voices, first-person broken and often incorrect English from Lakshmi (a style some may find problematic, even offensive), and close third person from Maggie's perspective. Early on, Maggie muses on "the opacity of human relations, the inability to truly know someone else," but Umrigar's narrative technique divulges these two self-covering women in all their vulnerability and complexity. However, occasional breaks from the convention - a few pages from Peter's point of view, a first-person interlude from Maggie - seem arbitrary or unnecessary, and to present Lakshmi's confession in polished third-person English is an odd decision.

In The World We Found, Umrigar writes: "she was irreducibly in love with this bewitching planet, this thrilling life, this heartbreaking species she belonged to, with its capacity for stupefying destruction and breathtaking magnanimity." The world of The Story Hour brims with the same capacity for destruction and magnanimity, and its readers may find themselves thrilling to it as to a living world, well and truly heart-struck by its psychological acuity, lyricism, and generosity of spirit.

Cleveland Plain Dealer [read...]

Cleveland novelist Thrity Umrigar has established a deserved reputation as a sensitive chronicler of the Indian woman's experience, both in India and in America.

In her thoughtful and moving new novel, The Story Hour (HarperCollins, 336 pp., $25.99), she broadens her scope to include Maggie, an educated, upper-middle-class African-American woman caught up in a complex and often tense relationship with Lakshmi, a working-class Indian woman barely able to function outside of her husband's tight control.

The result is a rich, insightful and very satisfying examination of the unexpected friendships and inevitable misunderstandings and conflicts that arise when two women of such completely different backgrounds are thrown together.

Maggie Bose first meets Lakshmi Patil when she is asked to conduct a psychiatric intake evaluation at the hospital. Lakshmi has tried to commit suicide by taking pills. Maggie suspects that her boss has asked her to take the case because Maggie's husband is Indian, but she quickly discovers that the class differences between her and Lakshmi far outweigh any tenuous links they may have.

Lakshmi comes from a small village, speaks broken English and is essentially an unpaid servant in her husband's grocery and restaurant, while Maggie and her husband, Sudhir, are highly educated professionals with a comfortable upper-middle-class life. Lakshmi has no friends and her husband treats her with disdain, while Maggie and Sudhir seem to have a perfect marriage.

Maggie, concerned about Lakshmi attempting suicide again, agrees to treat her for nothing, and soon Lakshmi is making weekly bus trips to Maggie's home office. Lakshmi, misunderstanding Maggie's kindness, begins to think of the psychiatrist as her friend, and Maggie doesn't do nearly enough to discourage this. In fact, Maggie and Sudhir hire Lakshmi to cook and clean for them and recommend her to their friends.

Everything seems cozy, and Maggie tells herself that her breach of professional ethics is warranted because Lakshmi is alone and friendless and needs Maggie's help to create a more fulfilling life for herself. But both women are carrying terrible secrets, and when Lakshmi discovers Maggie's, she betrays her friend in a shocking and profoundly destructive way that even she doesn't understand.

In the aftermath of Lakshmi's betrayal, she says of herself: "Maggie and Sudhir babu take the snake into their home. They good to snake, they give it friendship, they find it job, they teach it to drive car. And one day Maggie look away for one minute and the snake bite and release the poison into their life. That snake, me. But here is the thing: Until I release my poison, I not knowing I carrying it in my heart."

Umrigar has created a satisfying story that doesn't go for the easy answers or pat resolutions. Although Lakshmi's broken English wears at the reader after a time and there's barely a shred of ethnicity in Maggie's African-American character, those are minor quibbles about a solid achievement.

Library Journal (Starred Review) [read...]

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 (after The World We Found) 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.