Title: The Story Hour
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Maggie has just come to the end of a long day at the hospital when she’s told she has just one more patient who needs therapy: a young woman from India who has just tried to commit suicide. Maggie is impatient because she’s ready to leave, but she has no idea that this woman, Lakshmi, will change her life. As Maggie comes to know Lakshmi and understand the unhappiness and loneliness she feels every day, Maggie will make her own fateful decisions about her life.
A gorgeous novel full of hope and heartbreak, The Story Hour follows the lives of two very different women and how they change each other while dealing with serious issues such as race and the isolation of immigrants.
Thrity Umrigar’s latest novel, The Story Hour, tells the stories of two very different women. Maggie is in her mid-fifties, a psychologist who has had increasing difficulty maintaining the emotional boundaries that are so crucial in her profession. Lakshmi, meanwhile, is in her early thirties, in a loveless marriage with no independence or resources. Maggie identifies with Lakshmi in superficial ways—their mothers both died when they were young, Maggie is also married to an Indian man—and so she allows this woman into her life, ignoring the dictates of her profession.
What’s remarkable about The Story Hour is the emotion it brings forth in the reader. From the first page, reading about Lakshmi’s despair, the simple things had had made her decide to take her own life, I had to choke back tears. This emotional connection to the narrative continues as it progresses; even when you discover the worst in these characters, it won’t stop you from loving them, from wanting them to somehow find happiness. It’s a novel of small heartbreaks, losses, and mistakes, about intentions versus results, and realizing that not being able to accept fault and admit when you’re wrong is the worst mistake you can make.
Umrigar also tackles many important issues in The Story Hour, the most prominent of which is race. When Lakshmi first meets Maggie, she reacts viscerally. Lakshmi has been told by her husband that all African Americans are cheats and liars, and so Lakshmi treats Maggie as such. It’s painful to see this horrible preconception, especially against gentle Maggie, but it’s a reality of the world we live in. Umrigar isn’t shy about commenting on this subject through her characters, and it’s heartwarming to watch the friendship between Maggie and Lakshmi grow and change both of them.
Another large topic that Umrigar discusses in The Story Hour is the isolation of immigrants. Lakshmi is so lonely and has no one. Being unable to drive in a country where cars are a backbone of society means that she has no independence. Lack of income contributes to Lakshmi’s low self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Umrigar captures the emotion behind this very well; the reader can really feel Lakshmi’s despair at her isolation.
In the end, The Story Hour might feel a bit unrealistic, possibly like a fairy tale, with how far the characters come and how much they are changed by one another. This doesn’t even matter, though, because it’s incredibly well done with fully realized characters, both major and minor, who leap off the page. There are no “good” or “bad” characters in this narrative; Umrigar doesn’t have the patience for such overused cliches. No, instead there is just us, as we are, with all of our flaws and mistakes and humanity. No matter what background or culture you come from, you will identify with these exquisite characters.
Other books by Thrity Umrigar: