Friday, March 26, 2010

a review of "One Amazing Thing" [21]

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
(Voice, ISBN 978-1401340995)

If you found yourself in a potentially life threatening situation and were challenged to tell a story about yourself, about "one amazing thing" from your life, what story would you tell? This is the challenge given to the characters in this story and it is the challenge that is at the heart of this interesting little book.

A small group of people are sitting in a basement office of the Indian Embassy in an unnamed city, seemingly San Francisco, waiting for their visa applications to be processed, when a slight rumble shakes the building. But then there is another and...
"This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building's foundation and roared. The floor buckled, throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both his hands and shook it."
In all, nine people are trapped in the visa office by the earthquake. There is our first narrator, Uma, a graduate student, confused about her feelings for her boyfriend and taking a break to visit her parents in India. There is an elderly Chinese woman, returning home to India for the first time since she was forced to leave during the Sino-Indian War in the 60's and her teenage granddaughter. Then there is a young Muslim-American man, still dealing with the changes since 9-11, a middle-aged Caucasian couple who seem to be barely speaking to each other, an African-American ex-soldier, dealing with his own personal demons and two visa workers, who were, before the earthquake struck, on the verge of an adulterous affair. As Uma comments, they are like their own little min U.N summit.

They are trapped by the partially collapsed building, no electric, no phones, some injuries, but at first, assuming they will be shortly rescued, things don't seem that bad. Cameron, the ex-soldier, takes charge, getting them to collect drinking water, merge together their very limited food, organize what first-aid materials they can find. But as hour after hour goes by and there is no sign of rescue, water starts rising on the floor and aftershocks bring down more of the room they are trapped in, things become more desperate and people begin to panic. It is out of an attempt to calm people down and distract them from the fact that help may not arrive in time to save them, that Una suggests they gather in a circle and take turns sharing one story from their lives, one amazing thing that they have never shared with anyone else before.

Most of the book, about 2/3 of the short 200 pages are taken up by these stories and it these short, revealing tales, told by each of the nine characters in turn, that are the heart of this book. No, we will not know all there is to know about these people after they share their tales, but we will have a glimpse at their hearts and their shared themes of love and loss, betrayal and redemption and a glimpse of their common humanity.

When the book begins, Uma is reading The Canterbury Tales, as she sits waiting, and that is no coincident. At the book's launch party,
"Divakaruni explained why she adopted the Canterbury Tales-like structure of the novel. By having her nine characters tell stories, she could "open up" the novel to nine different worlds while maintaining the dramatic tension created by the unfolding disaster, she said.

"Also I believe strongly in the power of story in creating a community," she said. "It is when we learn about the core of the lives of strangers that they become family to us.""
While it was not an issue for me, some readers may object to the ending of this book, which I will admit is not all neatly tied up. And granted, not all the stories are of the same high quality. But a few, especially that of the elderly grandmother, are good enough that they could have been the subject of their own book. The writing is often quite beautiful, much of the book very entertaining and several of the characters so clearly drawn and appealing that they will remain with you long after you have finished the book. In fact, you may find yourself wishing that you could know more about these people of whom you have just had a small glimpse.

So, where did I get this book. Well, I was fortunate enough to have received a copy from The Boston Bibliophile...thank you again. But then, since I assume at some point I requested a copy somewhere, I received another copy. So...I think it is time for a giveaway! See the next post for info on that rare "a lovely shore breeze..." occurrence. ;-)


  1. LOL. thank you for reviewing this book. I'm glad it turned out to have some good qualities!

  2. I'm also glad it has some good qualities! I have a copy, and am very tempted by the premise!

  3. Now you've got me wondering what I would tell - I can't think of anything amazing that I've done or that's happened to me. The book does sound interesting.

  4. It's hard to come up with something like that. Not sure what I would consider an amazing thing. Anyway it sounds interesting enough. Off to enter the contest.

  5. Oh wow ... for a second I didn't realize where I was. Love your new look!

    I'm wondering if the book reads like a collection of loosely tied together short stories? It almost sounds like that.

    And I don't want to be greedy so I won't enter the givewaway ... I'm happy with the "other item" we recently discussed. ; )

  6. lol...other item? huh... ;-)

    thank you for noticing my redecorating. you are the first. I was beginning to think I was imagining I did it.
    it is a work in progress...that is my excuse.

    no, actually, they all flow into each other pretty well and I never really had the feeling it was like a series of short stories. not that that is a bad thing.

  7. Hmm...I was underwhelmed about the unevenness of the stories. Some allow more depth while others don't even dabble. The ending came a bit abruptly, although there is a hint of new dalliance among some of the characters.

  8. I agree all the stories are not equal...but for the overall plot, and the best of the stories, I liked it.

  9. Thanks, for the review, sounds interesting.


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