The Story Hour
- Thrity Umrigar
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Barbara Esstman
- August 1, 2014
The friendship between two women is threatened when too many secrets are revealed.
Thrity Umrigar’s sixth novel, The Story Hour, explores the benefits and perils of close friendship between two women who become privy to each other’s most private acts and decisions. Because she has an Indian husband, Maggie, an African-American psychologist, is assigned to treat Lakshmi, an Indian immigrant who has attempted suicide in despair over a loveless marriage and a burdensome secret from her past. Maggie abandons all professional decorum, befriends Lakshmi, and helps her start a successful cleaning and catering business.
In spite of racial biases, they quickly become close, until Lakshmi confesses her darkest secret, and Maggie reacts with distaste and repulsion. When Lakshmi later discovers Maggie has no reason to act holier-than-thou, she sabotages Maggie in a rather breathtakingly vicious way and then must try to redeem herself and the friendship.
The Story Hour falls squarely in the territory of a specific sub-genre that deals with women bonding to solve each others’ personal and domestic issues; it examines the difficulties and triumphs of women who help each other strive to overcome incest, verbal abuse, domestic servitude, arranged marriage, arrogant lovers, unwanted divorce, painful estrangements, bad decisions made for good reasons, and decisions that are just plain terrible in essence and motivation.
Portrayed as a selfless giver in all aspects of her life, Lakshmi is especially set up to deserve reader sympathy as she overcomes one obstacle after another in record time. If you enjoy this kind of Female Pilgrim’s Progress in the Modern World, you will enjoy this book. In addition to the expected, it offers extras such as an adorable elephant who acts as a stand-in for Androcles’ lion, the exotic setting of Lakshmi’s home village, a flashback to a Hindu betrothal and wedding, and a sexily described hunk named Peter.
But here are my caveats. Except for a brief foray into the lover’s mind, the point of view alternates between Maggie and Lakshmi, which means half the book is written in Lakshmi’s injured and disabled English. Possibly there are readers who will find this conceit charming or authentic, but it just annoyed me, not only as a pain to read and limiting in scope, but because it is lacking in narrative logic. Her Pidgin English recorded in dialogue makes sense, even if it is tiresome, but at the same time, she correctly transcribes the Standard English of other characters, a good magic trick for a supposedly linguistically hampered person. Not to mention that she thinks and she and her husband converse in fractured English when a better choice would be a translated version of their more fluid Hindi. By her second chapter, I was not only annoyed by slogging through the heavy dialect, I was irate that she was being demeaned by not being allowed to speak as the educated and intelligent woman she was.
My second caveat involves how the book is structured. Besides being light on visuals and descriptions of settings, it is backstory-heavy, which often causes the present-time plot to be out-weighed and sometimes glossed over. Characters with much on their minds suddenly seem perfectly fine and breeze through scenes that are devoid of any underlying tension or other indication that they are privately dealing with or covering up stressors. Readers are privy to resulting action, but how the characters arrived at those moments is given short shrift.
For example, when Maggie first visits Lakshmi after her suicide attempt and in spite of personal biases, the two women are soon laughing like good friends. But often in this book I found big issues too easily solved for the sake of moving the plot along and the reasons for these solutions told instead of shown. Without sufficient foreshadowing characters too often act inconsistently for the sake of dramatic action rather than from carefully constructed psyches, and in contradiction with the title, the story hours are somewhat random with rarely a substantial cause-and-effect between the action of the present-time plot and the telling of a particular story.
But for those who don’t mind forging through dialect and who enjoy the large sweep of human drama, they will find much to like in this book that packs in so many issues. My favorite part was the striking comparison of aging skin to wrinkled aluminum foil, and that comparison was so right-on that I will always remember it. I will also most likely recall the identical first and last lines, “I begins,” but probably for all the wrong reasons.
Barbara Esstman, an MFA and NEA fellow, teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and does developmental editing with private clients. Published by Harcourt and in numerous foreign translations, her novels, The Other Anna and Night Ride Home, were also adapted for film by Hallmark.