Telling stories is a method by which we preserve our histories, relate to others on a personal level, and learn from each other. It is also how we divulge secrets and heal our emotional injuries. In The Story Hour, Thrity Umrigar brings together two dissimilar women who, through storytelling, forge an unconventional friendship that is tested more than once.
Dr. Maggie Bose, an African-American psychologist married to Sudhir, “an Indian immigrant who taught at the university,” is assigned to Lakshmi Patil’s case after the young immigrant’s suicide attempt. In Lakshmi, Maggie sees a woman who has everything going against her: a marriage bereft of love, an abusive, controlling husband who calls her “Stupid,” and a world confined to their apartment, restaurant, and grocery store. Even contact with her family in India is prohibited.
Profoundly affected by Lakshmi’s dilemma, Maggie offers pro bono treatment in her home office with the goal of helping Lakshmi gain confidence and a measure of independence. Early in their sessions, Maggie recognizes that the 32-year old woman before her is acutely lonely and more in need of a friend than a therapist. As soon as Lakshmi comes to Maggie’s office, the doctor-patient relationship changes. Lines are crossed. Boundaries crumble.
Maggie allows Lakshmi freedoms that are not extended to other patients, and Lakshmi—who doesn’t understand the purpose of the therapy sessions—interprets Maggie’s interest in her as friendship. After all, wasn’t she invited into Maggie’s home?
As their friendship progresses, Lakshmi begins to take control of her own life. With Sudhir’s encouragement, she caters parties, cleans houses, learns to drive, and generates her own income, thus helping her marriage. But Lakshmi has a closely-guarded secret that gnaws at her, and when her secret is shared, Maggie is stunned and appalled.
As Lakshmi heals, Maggie begins to lose control of her own life. Her actions put her relationship with Lakshmi and, more importantly, her enviable marriage to Sudhir at risk. She just can’t say no to the lover she vowed never to see again.
Umrigar created an emotional roller coaster in this novel filled with joyful highs and mournful lows, misunderstanding and forgiveness. The dynamics between characters yields tension of varying degrees for so many reasons that they had to have been choreographed carefully to facilitate the smooth transition in which the patient heals and the doctor requires healing. However, Umrigar believes otherwise.
“I guess I (trusted) my instincts on this,” she said. “It seems to me that there are highs and lows in every individual’s life and if I depicted them in an authentic manner, the balance would take care of itself.”
Lakshmi’s healing begins with Maggie saying to her, “Tell me about your village. Tell me about where you grew up.”
To Lakshmi, this becomes personal. Talking about her village, her family, the people, and even the elephant that lived there allows Lakshmi to realize that she is worth more and smarter than she is made to believe. Umrigar herself is a master storyteller, bringing to life characters such as these that experience emotions to which we’re often too afraid to admit.
“I suppose most of us believe that talking to another human being, telling your story and secrets to someone else, is a way of healing,” Umrigar said. “The thing that I learned in writing this book is realizing that talk therapy is ultimately the act of storytelling. And it made me realize the power of storytelling. We all have a meta-narrative about our own lives. In some ways, you could look at therapy as a means to change or rewrite that narrative.
(Once) we tell ourselves and others a different story about ourselves, change and healing become possible.”
Interestingly, there are distinct similarities between The Story Hour and The Space Between Us (India Currents, January 2006). The main characters in both novels are vastly different from each other yet find things in common that eventually bind them. I asked Umrigar how much of an influence The Space Between Us was on The Story Hour.
“I was not aware of the parallels between Space and The Story Hour until I began editing the first draft,” she revealed. “It was only then that I saw the similarities between the two books. Lakshmi and Maggie, much like Sera and Bhima, have very little in common. They come from different classes and education backgrounds. In the new book, they are also divided by race and nationality. And yet, instead of focusing on the differences, they realize the things that they have in common and this becomes the basis for a kind of friendship. Much like in Space, it is not a classic friendship between equals. And in this book too, that bond that the women share is severely tested and their response to that test determines the course of their lives.”
Aside from parallels in characters, the theme of loneliness is prevalent from cover to cover and not unique to The Story Hour. Umrigar, in book after book, opens windows to her characters’ souls, allowing the reader to feel and understand the pain and suffering of being lonely. In Lakshmi’s case, it is the most heartbreaking and most primal:
“In Lakshmi’s crying,” Umrigar writes of Lakshmi’s opening up to Maggie, “was the sound you’d make if you were the last person left alive on the entire planet.”
To one degree or another, this theme found its way into Umrigar’s six novels as evidenced by Nishta/Zoha in The World We Found (India Currents July 2012) and Tehmina in If Today Be Sweet (India Currents July 2007).
“It’s a good observation even if it’s something I’m not terribly aware of while writing,” Umrigar said. “I suppose because of the subject matter that I am usually drawn to, loneliness is an inevitable subtext. I think many of my books are about human beings struggling and looking for love, hoping to shed the confines of their own skin and build community or make some connection with another.”
Another theme that often appears in Umrigar’s fiction is the challenges facing immigrants. Umrigar knows first-hand the process of coming to a new country and finding one’s place. In that regard, she hopes her readers will “… gain an insight into how heart wrenchingly difficult the act of immigration truly is.”
“I would like them to show some compassion towards immigrants like Lakshmi, who come to this country with poor or little English, little education, little money, very little community support, who live lonely and isolated lives in America. Because there’s so much news about people crossing the border illegally … people sometimes forget how gigantically difficult it is to voluntarily give up country, family, friends, language, and go to another land.
“Nativeborn Americans don’t appreciate the sheer desperation that makes people do this. If the next time they see a newspaper headline about immigration, legal or illegal, if remembering Lakshmi’s struggle makes them feel a little more kindly towards the immigrant, it would make me happy.”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.