Review: One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


In an unnamed American city, seven customers and two officials remained in the visa office of an Indian consulate, during the late afternoon, each lost in his or her own thoughts, when an earthquake struck. Amidst the chaos that follows, only one person, Cameron, an African-American ex-soldier retains his senses. He tries to calm the people down, and keep them away from the collapsed section of the office. Soon after, everyone's focus turns to survival. They try to scrape together as much food as possible, they collect water in bowls from the visa officer Mangalam's bathroom, they distrust each other. Slowly, the office begins to flood.

When finally the stress begins to get to them and they wait achingly for help to come, Uma, a young graduate student, brings every one together and tells them to each tell one story, one amazing thing, that happened to them. And as they kept waiting for rescue, they each began to tell a tale of something that defined the person they have become.

One Amazing Thing is a wonderful read, mainly for the many stories that weave together to make a coherent unit. The first one-third of the book shows each character in a certain firmly set Plaster-of-Paris role. They were either magnanimous or selfish; kind or rude; imposing or withdrawn. Already I liked or hated certain characters. I didn't care for some, and a few left me in an ambiguous state.

Chitra wrote these characters really well, but some of the characters felt too stereotyped for me. For instance, there is the Indian American girl, Uma, whose boyfriend is non-Indian. Her parents do not exactly support this decision of hers and are hoping to get her to meet some Indian guys during her vacation. That may be a common dilemma among Indian Americans, but I didn't want to read about yet another Indian-American girl rebelling against her parents and having immigrant issues within her family. Tariq, a Muslim, is shown to be highly rebellious and violent, yet another common stereotype among Muslims who have long suffered since 9/11 for no fault of theirs. Through their stories, I was able to appreciate them better, but I found their character descriptions slightly weak, especially Tariq's because of his easy typecasting into the angry young Muslim.

The stories themselves were very captivating. Some of them were really powerful and gave a nice insight in to the characters and their various thoughts that we have been reading for most of the book. Some, like Uma's, didn't exactly connect well with their present circumstances. I felt her story to be somewhat of an aberrant, after being inside her head for too long. All the stories weren't exactly happily-ever-afters. They do have character redemption, but most felt strangely incomplete. Although they were narrating one significant thing that happened to them, I had a lot of questions once they were done with the story.

As Heather mentioned in her review, I found the narration of the stories very discordant. Chitra tries to tell each story uniquely, but in the process does not give each narrator his or her own unique voice, which is what would be ideal in a multi-cultural setting as this. Instead, she uses different narrating styles. One person's story is told entirely in the present-tense format, which happens to be the one story-telling style I like the least. After a while, the different styles felt highly jarring.

As I turned the last page, I felt highly unsatisfied to the level that I wanted to scream. I definitely didn't appreciate the way it ended, since it left me to fill in the gaps. I find this mode of fiction becoming a lot popular nowadays - an ambiguous ending that leaves the viewer/reader to form his or her own interpretations. That works well in highly imaginative shows like LOST, and supernatural or paranormal books, where one's own beliefs can play a role in how one reads the story. But where things are stated as they are, as in One Amazing Thing, I would have appreciated a couple more pages to explain what was left out. A week after reading this book, I don't feel too bothered now - probably because I've come to realize that what-was-left-out was not consequential to the story as a whole, since the events in the basement would have no bearings on the two possible endings. I also concocted my own follow-up for the same, so my anxious mind rests easy now.


Check out this book published by Hyperion (Voice imprint) @ Goodreads, BetterWorldBooks, Amazon, B&N.

I picked this book from the library on a whim after scanning the New Releases section.

12 comments:

Lisa said...

Oh...a friend loaned me this one and swore it was wonderful. I feel like I have to read it but at least it's short!

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Helen's Book Blog said...

Thanks for this review Aths! Since I am on vacation I can't remember if I feel a familiarity with this book because I own it or because I've seen it on your blog a few times! Ah, confusion. I'll still read it if i own it, but at least I'll be prepared.

Diane said...

My review rating was similar to yours. I liked this book, but it was not perfect. Great review Aths.

Aths said...

Lisa, you definitely should read it! It is a delightful read, in spite of its many faults.

Susan, thank you! :o)

Helen, Haha! That is some confusion indeed!! But I hope you get to read this book somehow, either from your own pile or from the library.

Diane, thanks Diane! I wished those minor chinks could be toned out. It would have made for a better reading experience.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Beautiful review. I've been wondering about this one. I am however sad to hear that the ending is lacking.

Eva said...

I read Mistress of Spices last year and felt it didn't get past the stereotypes either. I was wondering if her writing developed more over the years, but it sounds like a no. :/

Heather J. said...

Ok, so ... you need to email me your made-up ending - I want to know what you think happens! :)

Wendy said...

Well, you said exactly what I felt about this book! I was annoyed by the ending too...and I wanted the story to be more cohesive than it was. I was impressed by the author's prose, however, and for that, I will try another novel by her someday!

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

Oh no! I've been really excited about getting my hands on this book, but I hate disappointing endings. Thanks for the thoughtful, balanced review.

Aths said...

Juju, I wish the ending was better. The book was so good till that point!

Eva, I'm sorry to hear that because Mistress of Spices is in my TBR. I guess I will pick it up much later.

Heather, LOL! I made a kinda long ending, but to cut a long story short, they all manage to escape, but not without a couple of them getting injured. :)

Wendy, I enjoyed Chitra's writing too! And for that reason, I had lots of hopes for this book. Sad it didn't work out that way!

Stephanie, I hope you do try this book, since it is written well and is quite engrossing. I just wish the ending was a lot meatier.

Urvashi said...

I just finished the book, like ten minutes ago. And the first thing I did was to google about its ending, I wanted to know whether the ending is actually ambiguous or is it just me who is unable to decipher some hidden meaning or message which is clearly out there. I came across this blog and sighed with relief to find so many people who share my thoughts.
I received this book as a birthday gift a few days ago and was excited to read it, and quite honestly I was mesmerised with it till I turned the last page. I wanted to scream in irritation and disappointment. I do not like such endings; I wanted to know what happened to them? Did all of them survive or not? In fact I feel this book could have been longer, a lot more playing around could have been done with 9 characters. Nonetheless, i thought the book is nice. But it could definitely do with AN ENDING!