Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Release Date: February 2, 2010
Publisher: Voice Publishing
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Adult Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Summary: Late afternoon in an Indian visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.
When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine wildly individual characters together, their focus first jolts to a collective struggle to survive. There’s little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, “one amazing thing” from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. As their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression itself. One Amazing Thing is a passionate creation about survival—and about the reasons to survive.
My Thoughts: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has written a fascinating story about nine people thrown together during a frightening and traumatic situation in an India passport and visa office. In order to survive, they are forced to rely on and trust each other while waiting to be rescued. Overcoming their prejudices and judgments about each other is the greatest obstacle for many of the nine strangers. Although survival is the ultimate goal, the relationships they form and what they learn about each other and themselves makes this a captivating story, one you don't want to pass up.
Uma, a single girl, is a university student waiting for a passport to visit her parents in India. She describes the other people in the office waiting room with her, as well as the boss and the customer service representative. Uma judges the others, sometimes harshly, though she is often quick to correct her thoughts, aware that they are rude and unkind. Her insecurities and lack of confidence display how awkward and uncomfortable she feels around people she doesn't know or recognize. Her somewhat peevish humor seems to be partly a result of her reluctance to visit her parents, whose lifestyle she finds disagreeable.
Some of the other characters also provide opinions of their fellow captives, for better or worse. But the end result is we are provided a well-rounded initial picture of the nine strangers, as well as some insight into their personalities and character. These initial judgments are based on what the individuals see in front of them but, as often happens in life, many of the first impressions change as the strangers become familiar and begin to recognize each other as fellow human beings. As such, they come to rely on each other to get through this trauma.
Malathi, the customer service representative, for example, didn't want to give up her sari as a sling for Uma's arm because she thought Uma was a snobby, educated young woman who believed herself superior. She gives it to Uma and Uma, in turn, gives Malathi a sweatshirt to wear. And Mrs. Pritchett denied having any pain medication when asked in front of the group but later on she shared some of her Xanax with Uma to help with the pain of her injured arm.
Ms. Divakaruni employs a very creative vehicle for revealing the characters to us and each other when Uma stands up in front of the group and suggests they each tell a story about their lives "...to focus their minds on something compelling". "Everyone has a story," said Uma... "I don't believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing." It is an inspired way to occupy the group as they wait for help and to strengthen the fragile camaraderie that is slowly forming.
Each person's story is remarkable and captivating, garnering our sympathy as they become more than just a character in the story but someone we can relate to and recognize. What I found even more remarkable and enlightening is the way in which each story impacts the other eight people in the group. The stories reveal the reality of the person telling the story, their struggles, celebrations and the pain and joy they've endured in their lives. Each story strips away the person's outer self and displays their human side. The characters were no longer strangers to be distrusted but human beings with similar thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences.
Ms. Divakaruni illustrates how erroneous and mis-guided first impressions can be. It's important for us to be willing to move beyond our initial judgments and give each person the opportunity to show us the human being inside as well as to be vulnerable to them. Chances are we'll discover that our initial impressions were misguided as happened to many of the nine strangers trapped in the India passport and visa office.
One Amazing Thing is a book I would recommend to everyone. The stories told within its pages will surprise, shock and delight you as well as encourage you to think about your own story. What is your story, your at least one amazing thing? Be sure to share it with others! This is the first book I have read by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni but it certainly won't be the last.
I received an ARC copy of One Amazing Thing from the publisher via the Shelfari Newsletter.