Sunday, August 8, 2010

Book Review: "The Space Between Us" by Thrity Umrigar

Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Pages: 352
Publisher: Harper Perennial, February 6, 2007
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary: Poignant and compelling, evocative and unforgettable, The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world. Set in modern-day India and witnessed through two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. A powerful and perceptive literary masterwork, author Thrity Umrigar's extraordinary novel the novel demonstrates how the lives of the rich and the poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and how the strong bonds of womanhood are eternally opposed by the divisions of class and culture.

My Thoughts:
I read this book as part of a read-a-long hosted by Lisa at Lit and Life. I joined the group two weeks late and missed the last week because I was hospitalized a few days. It's because of Lisa's read-a-long that I read The Space Between Us and I'm thrilled I read this book! I thought I would review the book because I missed so much of the read-a-long and it's a wonderful book to tell you about and one everyone should read!

The Space Between Us is a beautiful book and one of the best I've read in a long time. It's a sad but inspiring story about friendship, love, family and coping with life's pain and disappointments. The main characters, Bhima and Serabai (Sera) have known each other more than twenty years and are better friends than most mistresses and their servants but their is also a distance between them, especially on Sera's side. Both women experienced many troubling times throughout their lives, relayed to us through their reminisces and memories. Despite the hardships they've experienced, Bhima and Sera are strong, determined women, particularly
Bhima, who I found myself rooting for from the beginning.

Thrity Umrigar writes such realistic, three-dimensional characters, that we understand and relate to them as well as 'see' them in their environment. Bhima and Sera are sympathetic, and strong but also flawed, so their behavior makes sense. For example, after the many disappointments Bhima has experienced in life we can understand that she's often tired and worn out, ready to throw in the towel. But then she sees the innocent, loving face of her granddaughter, Maya, and the energy to continue and give Maya a good life surges through her body. As for Sera, she is relatable because of the many conflicting emotions she must deal with, though I'm reluctant to go into detail for fear of giving away too much of the story.

Bhima and Sera know intimate details about each other, but there is a distance between them, which causes awkwardness in their interaction. Bhima will never be invited to a party at Sera's house. They will never go to a restaurant together and they will never share a meal at the same table in either's home. Bhima is Sera's servant. As such, she will never be treated as a member of Sera's family or the closest, most intimate of friends because she is considered beneath them. Bhima lives in a slum while Sera lives in a big, beautiful house. Bhima is illiterate and the differences go on. But where Bhima understands and accepts the distance between them, Sera is uncomfortable and confused. Though they feel for each other, these feelings do not transcend their places in society.

Sera struggles with how to treat Bhima. She is good to her but sometimes could be kinder. Sera knows Bhima's life has been painful and disappointing She considers allowing her to sit on a chair or the sofa, or use the families silverware but the very thought of doing so repulses her. It makes her skin crawl. Her friends make fun of her for treating Bhima as well as she does. Though this troubles her, it helps her to justify the things she doesn't do for Bhima. But Sera knows what it feels like to be treated poorly, to be ostracized and told she is unclean. She flinches when she thinks about the time in her life when she was made to feel like less of a person.

Bhima doesn't begrudge Sera her wealth or lifestyle. In fact, she looks up to Sera with admiration and respects. Bhima knows the difficult times in Sera's life, her marriage troubles and the problems posed by her mother-in-law. Bhima has consoled her in the past and wishes happiness for her in her future. Bhima feels fortunate that Sera has been paying for Maya's college education and for the other help Sera has given her in the past. She knows most other mistresses wouldn't help their servants the way Sera has helped her.

Their differences can be loosely summarized by their outlooks. While they both have experienced very difficult and painful events, Bhima blames herself for what's happened to her believing her lack of education and stupidity has caused all of her difficulties in life while Sera wonders why the bad things happened to her. Unlike Sera, who is depressed and weighed down by her troubles, Bhima perseveres and continues to push forward in life, to do what she has to do to try to make things better for herself and Maya.

Thrity Umrigar has written an amazing book about women and life in modern-day Bombay, about their friendships and what they share and the differences that separate them. This is a book that begs to be read again and again and you know, with each additional reading, you will grasp new meaning from Umrigar's themes, images and story. I could write pages about what I learned from The Space Between Us but I don't want to scare off my readers! LOL And I think this is a book we should all experience for ourselves. The Space Between Us is worth taking the time to read and savor.

Thrity Umrigar's story is filled with beautiful prose and descriptive passages. Below are two that stuck with me:

"As they walk, Bhima feels herself dropping her burdens into the welcoming water, so that her body becomes softer, more pliable and she loses some of the angry stiffness that she normally carries in her. She is glad that she and Maya have taken to going to the seaside in the evenings. She listens to the rhythmic sighing of the dark sea and feels that it echoes her own. The water fights against the shore, chafing at its boundaries, leaving behind a foamy hiss of frustration as it recedes. Bhima feels her tired feet dig deep into the wet sand, looking for a place to call their own." (p.197)

"Four years into her marriage, Sera had woken one morning to feel something hot and sticky in the back of her throat. For a minute, she thought it was the start of another sinus infection, but when she swallowed cautiously, her throat did not hurt.

It was hate. Hate that was lodged like a bone in her throat. Hate that made her feel sick, that gave her mouth a bitter, dry taste. Hate that entered her heart like a fever, that made her lips curve downward like a bent spoon." (p.181)


  1. I can't wait to read this book because I loved The Weight of Heaven so much. Sorry to see you were in the hospital - I hope you're okay now.

  2. I've heard SO MUCH about this author, that I think I want to make her my next project. Wonderful, in depth review!

  3. It just broke my heart that Bhima was such a good person and yet she blamed herself for everything bad that happened to her and expected so little of life.

  4. Amy, so glad to see that you loved this book as much as me. It was a favorite.

    Have a good week.

  5. Bermudaonion: Thank you Kathy! I think you'll really like this book. I can't wait to read The Weight of Heaven and Umrigar's other books. It's so great when we find an author whose work we really enjoy!

    Sandy: I think you'll really like her books. Ilook forward to your opinion! I am also looking forward to reading Umrigar's other books...very soon I hope! I

  6. Lisa: That was a heartbreaking part of the book. It's amazing the burdens Bhima carried with her.

    Bibliophile: Great to see you here! It really was a wonderful book. I'm so glad to know you loved it too. I'm not sure which of Thrity Umrigar's books I'll read next but I hope I can get to it soon!

  7. I've enjoyed all the posts on this book and can't wait to read it for myself!

  8. JoAnn: Thank you for stopping by! I'm very interested to read your thoughts on this book. I think you will really like it. I hope so!

  9. I've read so many reviews of this one lately and they have all been good. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  10. Great review. Your love of the book is clear. I'm glad your experience with it was similar to mine. Reading everyone's thoughts during this read-along was interesting for me since I read it several years ago - and yet it all stayed so strongly with me.

    I'm sorry to hear about your hospitalization - hope things are looking up.

  11. I'm a little late for the party, but wanted to say that I hope all is well on the health front!