Friday, August 21, 2009

The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

“The Weight of Heaven,” by Thrity Umrigar is a gripping story about Frank and Ellie, an American couple, trying to come to terms with the loss of their young son. The reader is immediately pulled into the couple’s pain of losing a child, but the story is not only about a family overcoming grief. The characters’ personal struggle, their relationship as a couple, and the impact on the community around them are the complex ideas that Umrigar weaves into a compelling story.

Frank and Ellie carry their grief to India when Frank accepts a job posting there, and hope that the change will help them heal. Frank is tortured by his loss, and blames his wife’s carelessness as contributing to their son’s death. After moving to India, Frank becomes obsessed with his servant’s young son Ramesh.
The story describes how Frank, desperate to fill a void, uses Ramesh as a replacement for his own son.

Meanwhile, his wife Ellie, allows this obsession to continue, thinking it will heal Frank somehow, and gives in to Frank’s ideas of always including Ramesh whenever possible in their own personal lives. I found this to be a bit unbelievable. Ellie is an educated therapist by profession and at some point would have stopped Frank’s unhealthy behavior and asked him to seek help!

Ramesh’s parents, Prakash and Edna, and their feelings towards their employer’s interest in their son were well explored. Prakash resented the intrusion of a strange American man taking such interest in his son, providing things he could only dream about, and slowly pulling him away. Edna welcomed the attention her son received, and saw this as a way to give Ramesh a bright future that she and Prakash could never provide. Prakash, Edna, and Ramesh were very believable characters, with very believable feelings. Just as Umrigar did in "The Space Between Us", she made the reader connect emotionally with characters of different socioeconomic classes on a human level.

Ellie becomes involved in charity work, helping the local women and children, and is well liked by all. She also seems to adjust to India and is much better at moving forward with her grief. Frank’s character seemed to be spiraling deeper into his obsession. It was also unusual when Frank and Ellie would take the boy with them during special occasions, especially holidays, leaving Prakash and Edna behind. Wouldn’t it have been easier to take Ramesh’s family together? Here again I thought that Ellie should have convinced her delusional husband Frank to do so, and found it a bit unsettling.

Frank’s inability to cope becomes a growing snowball, and the reader can feel the tension in the story increasing. The interactions between Frank, his workers, and his wife take a back seat to his obsession with Ramesh. This was very compelling, and I found it easy to become engrossed in the storyline, despite my disagreement with some parts.
The characters, their inner turmoil, and complexities were very eloquently developed. I didn’t mind that some choices didn't seem to fit because the story flowed well and kept me wanting to see what would happen next.

There were some unexpected twists in the plot when the couple deals with the locals, befriends a professional Indian couple, and Frank tries to run a business in India. Umrigar touched on topics of multinational corporations and their impact on the local people and environment, plus the corruption and abuse of power. The characters and their struggle stay with you long after you finish reading the book. This was a very well written story, a great book for a book club selection, and I recommend it highly.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

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