'Palace of Illusions' was a highly recommended book to me by the same author and I intended to pick that up. Alas, the book was out of stock but there was her latest output and I decided to read that one. So that's how 'One Amazing Thing' came to land in my lap.
I must admit that I was very intrigued by the cover summary of a group of people stuck in a near death situation reciting stories to each other to pass the time. And when it said that each story was about one amazing thing that had happened in their lives, I was hooked.
'One Amazing Thing' is a book about a group of people at the basement visa office of an Indian consulate all waiting for their interview. Each one of them has their own reasons to go to India and in essence that forms a core of the story. Why would a bitter middle aged American couple (Mrs and Mr. Pritchett), a Muslim American of Indian origin angry with the new America (Tariq), an African American (Cameron), a Chinese old woman (Jiang) with her grand daughter (Lily) want to go to India? The book is written from the perspective of a young Indian girl (Uma) who is returning to India to visit her parents. And then there is the Visa Officer (Mangalam) and the clerk (Malathi) on the verge of an extra-marital affair.
The author throws these interesting bunch of people in an earthquake hit basement, each with a secret of their own. Faced with the fact that they have no idea if they will be rescued or will die they start off on an aggressive note almost at each other's throat till Uma suggests that they tell each other a story to pass the time. The story should center around one amazing thing that happened in their lives. That forms the beginning of the thread.
'One Amazing Thing' could actually have been published as a collection of short stories. But by giving it a setting and a common view the author has very intelligently turned it into a small novel. Each story brings to life a facet of the human nature although not all stories are understandable or clearly bring out THE amazing thing in the story teller's life.
Mrs. Pritchett had tried to commit suicide when she comes up against a realisation that her married life does not have a kind of love that she wants - this after more than a decade of childless marriage. Really? Suicide? Wouldn't divorce be simpler? She wants to go to India to escape from her husband and be free!
Mr. Pritchett's life is about non-love. His mother was too tired from work and life to love him enough. His one love in life was a kitten that dies, maybe due to his carelessness. His only love is for numbers and maths and he is a successful accountant. He wants to go to India to bring the spark back in his wife's eyes and regain what was lost when she tried to commit suicide.
Tariq is upset with the new US where his father is taken away for no reason by the authorities after 9/11. Although he returns safely the trauma is too great and he suffers a stroke. Tariq is bitter and angry that he cannot call his own country - US - his own any more. His only silver lining is a girl who had come from India to spend a semester with them and has returned to India. He wants to go to India to meet her and maybe understand if he actually can relate to India. But he also has formed friendship with a group of people in US who are 'almost as close as brothers'. Are they terrorists? Will Tariq come back and become a terrorist? The author just leaves a morsel for us there.
Cameron is a failed example of his high ambitions. He wanted to escape the drudgery of his race and become a doctor. He was a very successful student and on track till he got waylaid by the love for a beautiful girl. She has small ambitions of working in a supermarket all her life and she thinks so does Cameron. When she gets pregnant Cameron asks her to get an abortion and is unable to sidetrack his original plans. He leaves her to join college but fate and karma have different things in store for him. He never becomes a doctor and while he becomes a soldier he is haunted by the loss of his 'unborn son' who he 'killed'. He adopts a girl in far flung India and hopes that by giving her a life, he will be absolved of his guilt. He wants to go to India in search of peace from his demons.
Mangalam is the result of living his life to fulfill the burden of high expectations. He manipulates his life to get married to a rich girl thinking that will solve his family's expectations of him but finds himself in a loveless marriage where he is a slave to his wife's desires. Lily's story is the most haunting one of talent, genius and living up to the high standards set by a sibling.
But the best stories of the lot are from Jiang and Malathi. Jiang's story is about grit and determination and finding love in the most impossible places. It is a story of a woman having to make her life in a man's world sometimes submissive, sometimes leading but always thinking beyond the horizon. In the hands of an Irving Wallace it would be a novel by itself. Malathi's story is more about courage and believing in something. She lives life by her set notions and dreams and does things to fulfill those dreams.
Uma, the protagonist, never gets to complete her story and we only get snippets into her life. The unfortunate part is that these pieces seem so disconnected that it feels as if it cannot belong to one person. There are many unanswered questions in the author's dealings with Uma and you feel as if she did not know which way to take Uma's story. In the end the most frustrating part is that all these questions are left unanswered. To me it felt as if one day the author could not write any further and just decided to end the book. It feels as if you have walked across a mountain to reach a beautiful place but you find yourself at the edge of a precipice with no land in sight.
I hate stories that do not tie their loose ends and this novel belongs to that category. Do they survive? Do they die? Is there a link between all of them? Do they learn anything from each other? No answers!
In the end it is a breezy read. I would recommend it for a short journey. You won't remember most of the stories after a few days but maybe what will stay with you is to make you remember if you have had an amazing experience in your life.
I rate this 3/5. Borrow and read it but maybe don't buy it!
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