Lakshmi is an Indian woman who works for her husband in his restaurant and grocery store in a Midwestern city. Her husband denigrates her at every turn and has cut her off from the family she loves in India. When a regular customer who has always treated Lakshmi with kindness and respect confides that he is moving to California, Lakshmi is devastated. Feeling as if his leaving takes the only good thing from her life, she decides to commit suicide by taking a bunch of her husband's pills. She is unsuccessful and when she wakes up in the hospital, she is no less broken than before her attempt, unwilling to cooperate or even speak with doctors.
Maggie is the psychologist assigned to Lakshmi. She's always been adept at the hard cases but she suspects that it isn't her undeniable skill but rather her color (she's African American) and her marriage (she's married to an Indian man) that made her boss so sure that Maggie can help Lakshmi. Whatever the ultimate reason, Maggie can indeed help Lakshmi and Lakshmi is willing to let her. After releasing her from the hospital, Maggie takes to treating Lakshmi pro bono from her office at her home. Their therapy sessions quickly become hours where Lakshmi tells Maggie about her past in India and the woman she was before she came to America. In treating Lakshmi in this unconventional way, Maggie is blurring the lines between therapist and friend, a necessary distinction in her profession and therefore an unforgivable lapse.
Sudhir, Maggie's steady and dependable mathematics professor husband, also comes to like Lakshmi, helping to encourage her to become empowered, to start a catering business, and to clean for their friends. Lakshmi, in turn, appreciates Sudhir for all the ways in which he is so different from her own husband. Maggie remains torn about whether to call her relationship with Lakshmi a friendship or not, never sharing the realities of her own life with her patient, but she is so entwined into Lakshmi's life that it is more than just a patient doctor relationship; it is in fact a fledgling friendship no matter what reservations Maggie has. But this fragile friendship, built on the flimsiest of commonalities cannot sustain itself in the face of judgment and betrayal.
Umrigar has written an incandescent tale of secrets and expectations, the way in which we cannot bury our past, the long reaching scars of abuse, the power of stories and of finding a voice, and the small everyday gestures that show our love more than any flash and excitement can. Her characters are multi-layered and complex and the reader's feelings about each of them changes over time and with the revelations and choices they make. Maggie's secrets are always visible to the reader while Lakshmi's are slowly revealed through her story hours with Maggie. This keeps taut what would otherwise be a quiet story. The narration alternates between Maggie and Lakshmi, the latter of whom's sections are written in the dialect of an immigrant whose English is imperfect. This makes Lakshmi sound authentic but can be a little difficult to read in the beginning. It is not a dramatic story but a gorgeously rendered tale of truth and its cost, words and their value, actions and their result. The ending is left only partially resolved but it is fitting within the larger framework of the rest of the novel. Umrigar has written another incisive and beautiful cross-cultural tale here, one which fans of literary fiction will certainly appreciate.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.