Title: The Weight of Heaven
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Release Date: April 14, 2009
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
From the dust jacket:
When Frank and Ellie Benton lose their only child, seven-year-old Benny, to a sudden illness, the perfect life they had built is shattered. Filled with wrenching memories, their Ann Arbor home becomes unbearable, and their marriage founders. But an unexpected job half a world away offers them an opportunity to start again. Life in Girbaug, India, holds promise—and peril—when Frank befriends Ramesh, a bright, curious boy who quickly becomes the focus of the grieving man’s attentions. Haunted by memories of his dead son, Frank is consumed with making his family right—a quest that will lead him down an ever-darkening path with stark repercussions.
Filled with satisfyingly real characters and glowing with local color, The Weight of Heaven is a rare glimpse of a family and a country struggling under pressures beyond their control. In a devastating look at cultural clashes and divides, Umrigar illuminates how slowly we recover from unforgettable loss, how easily good intentions can turn evil, and how far a person will go to build a new world for those he loves.
When I found out that Thrity Umrigar’s latest novel wasn’t about Indians, though it was set in India, I didn’t really know what to think. On one hand, she writes so lyrically and beautifully, how can I not love everything she does? But on the other hand, I just wasn’t sure about it when I started this novel, especially since I have such high expectations when it comes to Thrity Umrigar. Of course, I shouldn’t have bothered worrying. The Weight of Heaven is a beautifully written, compelling, and utterly heartbreaking novel that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
In The Weight of Heaven, the two main characters, Frank and Ellie, have lost their young son Benny. When they move to India, they are still dealing with this tragedy and feeling the acute sense of loss that came with his death. This sense of grief is profound and weaves through the entire novel. Even at the happiest times, the reader can sense that deep sadness just beyond the words on the page. Umrigar writes this despair with heartbreaking vividness. I, who have never had a child, could feel a parent’s bottomless well of desolation. For the first time, I could understand why the loss of a child would break up a marriage.
The best part of The Weight of Heaven was the depiction of semi-rural India. The reader gets to see this vibrant country through two pairs of eyes. Frank has to deal with the workers and becomes frustrated with the corrupt nature of the government, as well as the somewhat lax work ethic of his labor force. He shows us one side of India. Ellie shows us another. She works in a clinic and becomes close to some of the women in the village. She sees beauty in every face she meets and begins to adopt the country as her own. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition that I think will appeal to non-Indian readers of the novel, as well as to Indians who have grown up in the United States. I really appreciated this honest portrayal of India.
Frank and Ellie themselves are incredibly well-written characters that seem to have lives of their own. After reading this book, it is difficult to believe that Frank and Ellie aren’t real people; their voices echo in my head and their stories will live with me for a very long time. I loved how complicated they were, how they had such mixed feelings towards India and towards one another. I had more trouble sympathizing with Frank, especially towards the end as events spiraled out of control, but I never hated him, never even disliked him. Writing him through Ellie’s eyes was an incredibly effective tool. Instead of disdaining him, the reader feels as Ellie does – he is a man who is grieving the loss of his son. Who are we to take away what little happiness he finds with Ramesh, even if the child isn’t necessarily Frank’s to love?
The Indian social commentary in The Weight of Heaven takes the novel to an entirely new level. There is so much jam-packed into these 384 pages, yet the novel never drags. It never feels slow and it is never too heavy for the reader to bear. There is a lightness with Umrigar’s words that is beautiful. I absolutely loved this novel and would recommend it to anyone and everyone. Don’t hesitate in picking up this amazing novel. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
A huge thank you to the publisher for sending me this book to review!