I discovered Thrity Umrigar in 2006 when I fell in love with her second novel, The Space Between Us — the story of the relationship between a middle-class woman in Bombay and her maid. I recall suggesting the book to nearly everyone who walked in the bookstore asking for a recommendation.
In The Story Hour, Umrigar returns to familiar territory — friendship between two “unequals”. Maggie, a psychologist, abandons professional propriety when she agrees to treat Lakshmi, a poor Indian immigrant, at no charge in her home office. Lakshmi, who is cut off from her family in India and trapped in a miserable marriage, has made an amateurish attempt at suicide. Maggie convinces Lakshmi’s husband, Adit (always referred to as “the husband” by Lakshmi) that Lakshmi can only be released from the hospital if she visits Maggie for weekly therapy appointments.
Lakshmi thinks of her weekly appointments with Maggie, her psychologist, as “story hours” — times for her to share her life experiences with the only person who is interested in listening to her. When Lakshmi arrives for her first appointment bearing home-cooked food for Maggie and her husband, Sudhir, Maggie tries, with little success, to explain the concept of the doctor-patient relationship. Maggie understands Indian culture fairly well, having been married to an Indian man for many years:
What did Lakshmi think this was? Happy hour? That they were going to spend the time chitchatting? Maggie knew that the very concept of therapy was alien to Lakshmi. Even among Sudhir’s educated family members in India, her profession was the butt of many jokes and eye-rolling . . . She was pretty sure that someone from Lakshmi’s peasant rural background couldn’t fathom the concept of paying a doctor to listen to her problems.
Eventually, Lakshmi grows to trust Maggie, developing a deep affection that enables her to share her guilty secrets. Lakshmi and Maggie both share the common bond of having lost their mothers at an early age. Maggie and Sudhir help Lakshmi gain independence, teaching her to drive and finding catering and cleaning jobs for her. Maggie — and the reader — first see Adit as a controlling and possibly abusive husband, but his behavior becomes more understandable as the story behind his marriage to Lakshmi emerges.
What Lakshmi doesn’t understand is that the friendship is not a relationship of equals. Maggie is older and more educated than her patient/friend — and she has been keeping a very big secret from Lakshmi. When Lakshmi stumbles upon that secret, she is shattered.
The Story Hour is every bit as insightful and thought-provoking as The Space Between Us. Maggie and Lakshmi are two of the most well-developed and believable characters I’ve encountered in recent literary fiction. Their husbands play supporting roles, but they too are characters of substance and depth. There are no heroes or villains in this novel — just ordinary people struggling with important questions in life. To what extent do our stories determine the paths our lives will take? What is the meaning and value of “storytelling” (both in the sense of sharing life stories and in the sense of “tattling”)? Can we forgive someone whose betrayal strikes at the very heart of our relationship?
The novel is told in the alternating perspectives of Maggie and Lakshmi. Lakshmi, an immigrant with limited education, speaks in broken English: “I reminder everything that Maggie say and do, how she make me feel comfortable and safe. How she take me for that walk out of the lockup and show me I human being and not the animal. My heart break like glass bangle when I thinks of Maggie.” I’m sure this is authentic — Thrity Umrigar certainly knows how a recent Indian immigrant might speak — but at first I found Lakshmi’s speech patterns distracting. Her incorrect English also has the effect of infantilizing her. It also seems somewhat derogatory. Also, there is one section (when she confesses a long-held secret to Maggie) in which she speaks with correct grammar. I’d be interested in learning more about why the author (and editor) made these decisions about her use of English.
The ending of The Story Hour (which, of course, I won’t reveal) is ambiguous –and I thought it was perfect. However, readers who like their loose ends tied up at the conclusion of a novel will not be satisfied. Book groups will undoubtedly argue about the ending. There’s plenty more to think about and discuss in The Story Hour, which has a well-paced and unpredictable plot for a character-driven novel.
Earlier this month, NPR interviewed Thrity Umrigar about “the unlikely — and medically unethical — friendship between a psychologist and a patient” in The Story Hour. To listen to the podcast and/or read the interview highlights, click here.
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