The Story Hour: A Novel, by Thrity Umrigar, (Harper), 336 pages
We’re only in August and The Story Hour is the eleventh novel I’ve put on my ten-best-in-2014 list. I know that’s a bit problematic from a numerical sense—but I also know that The Story Hour has to be on the list, even if I haven’t figured out yet what to cut.
The Story Hour takes readers on a cross-cultural journey. Lakshmi, an immigrant from a small, impoverished village in India, living with a husband who despises her, attempts suicide and is treated by Maggie, an African-American therapist raised in Brooklyn and now living in a small east coast college town with her Indian immigrant husband, who is a professor of mathematics.
The lives of these two women are both very similar and utterly different, which is what gives the novel its impact. The message here isn’t a vaguely humanistic “gee, we’re all so similar when we don’t focus on the differences.” Instead, it’s more along the lines of “we can’t assume we understand each other, but we can have a sense of commonality while exploring our differences respectfully.”
In the same way that the boundaries between similarity and difference are blurred in this novel, the boundaries between the therapist-client relationship and genuine friendship are also blurred. Lakshmi, unfamiliar with therapeutic practice can’t help but think of Maggie as a friend; Maggie realizes early on that, given her isolation in a foreign culture, Lakshmi may have more need for friendship than for therapy.
Thrity Umrigar navigates these similarities and differences deftly, creating a story that undulates like ribbons on the wind: repeatedly drawing together and moving apart. As the reader observes the choices both characters make, she’s afforded an opportunity for reflection. The complexity of Lakshmi and Maggie’s situations can remind the reader of the complexities of our own lives.
Ultimately, the message of this novel is about the value of the everyday, the ways that love is most clearly demonstrated in the small, automatic gestures with which we fill our lives. The Story Hour does have drama, but the drama is there as a foil to the commonplace, which takes on a preciousness we seldom see in it.
Time spent in the company of Lakshmi and Maggie is time well-spent. The reader will also find that it’s time spent well with her own self.