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 They were either magnanimous or selfish; kind or rude; imposing or withdrawn.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.
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I picked this book from the library on a whim after scanning the New Releases section.