From One Amazing Thing, Chitra Divakaruni:
I screwed up my life big-time, a lot of ways. Did a lot of stupid stuff. But at least I saw one amazing thing."
One Amazing Thing is the "Richardson Reads One Book" pick for 2012. It's a disaster novel (an earthquake traps a diverse cast of characters in the visa office of the Indian consulate in an unnamed American city). It's an uplifting morality play (victims, in turn, tell stories of events that changed their lives). It's short. It's an easy read. It would make a good book to take to the beach this summer.
After the jump, my review.
One Amazing Thing is not the sort of novel that I would normally choose to read. Its pick for "Richardson Reads One Book" was the reason I did. That and the fact that it's available from the Richardson Public Library in Kindle format (a plug for RPL). So, don't let my less than enthusiastic review dissuade you from reading it yourself, especially if you like uplifting melodramas. One Amazing Thing succeeds on that level. The characters are all easy to empathize with as they take turns telling stories of "betrayal, seduction, death." By telling each other their own personal sins and shames and mistakes and disappointments, they bond with each other in their increasingly desperate circumstances, trapped by an earthquake.
What's wrong with the novel? First, the literary allusions are heavy-handed. Chaucer made the plot device of story-telling pilgrims work. Divakaruni doesn't just try to channel Chaucer. She telegraphs the reader that she's channeling Chaucer. The main character is carrying a copy of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." There's a character named Lancelot. Another character scales a pile of rubble. "I’m Gulliver, she told herself. This is a mountain in Lilliput." Tensions rise, but instead of letting readers sense that from the action itself, Divakaruni tells the readers, "It was like their very own Lord of the Flies!"
More importantly, the nine tales told by the trapped victims, supposedly in their own words, all sound alike -- vocabulary, style, even plots. Which one mourned the lost kitten? Which the false first love? They all blend together, even though the diversity of characters -- from Asian grandmother to African-American war veteran -- is immense. Divakaruni should have picked the life story of just one of her characters, fleshed it out, and made that the sole focus of her novel. Maybe a book club could have fun arguing over which character that should be.
Divakaruni's language sounds like an English teacher striving for vivid description. An Indian secretary with less than a tenth grade education supposedly says, "Teachers were meagerly paid and resembled chewed-up sticks of sugarcane, and I had no desire to become one." The simile, while not bad, doesn't sound plausible coming from this character. Some of the other similes wouldn't sound plausible coming from any character: "Mangalam, too, had loved his wife in the beginning. He remembered the fact of that love, though not how it had felt. That memory was gone completely, like a computer file wiped out by a virus."
Divakaruni strives to write a novel about the big themes of love and death, heaven and earth. In some passages (too few for me), she succeeds (or at least comes close). In others, she just sounds corny.
"My garden, my home, my activities and friendships, even the time Mr. Pritchett and I spent together -- they were all so many zeroes. With the 'one' of love in front of them, they could have been worth millions, but as of now, I was bankrupt, and it was too late to start over."
"I had never before lain down on the bare ground at night. I pressed my palms against it. How foolish humans were to travel the world in search of history. Under my shoulder blades and over my head were the oldest histories of all: earth and sky."