June 23, 2010

Book Review: One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , at 9:33 am by The Word Jar

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni couldn’t have known how timely her book would be when it was released. One Amazing Thing, her new novel about survivors trapped together after an earthquake, is given a frighteningly real backdrop by the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Set in an unnamed American city, One Amazing Thing takes the reader through the ordeals faced by a disparate group of nine people trapped in the Indian visa and passport office after a major earthquake destroys the building around them. Uma, a graduate student planning to visit her parents in India, finds herself facing grim prospects with Lance and Vivienne, a married couple, Jiang and Lily, a grandmother and teenage granddaughter, Mangalam and Malathi, employees of the visa office, Tariq, a troubled young man, and Cameron, an ex-soldier. As tension builds, both because of the earthquake aftermath and personal prejudices, Uma suggests everyone share one amazing thing from their lives in order to take their minds off their situation.

Although the premise of the narrative is promising, this book is asked to support a lot of story. The bulk of the book is given to the character stories, and the story of survival is but the thinnest of threads trying to hold the distinct stories together. The stories offered by the characters are themselves expertly crafted and absorbing reads, but with nine characters to address, logistically there can’t be much time spent getting to know the individual characters. The characters get one chance to shine when they share their story, then they are cast to the periphery, having to balance with everyone else on that narrow survival thread. The relative absence of back story for the characters gives the book a sense of immediacy (how much can you really learn about a stranger when you are just trying to stay alive?), but offering “one amazing thing” with no frame of reference can leave the reader wondering why she should care about these people and their survival.

One Amazing Thing offers readers touching stories delivered in dire circumstances. Although this book can transport the reader and allow them to empathize with the survivors and victims of the recent real-world earthquakes, the book’s balance could be improved by either decreasing the number of characters or adding pages, allowing more time for meaningful character development.

(Review copy source: Hyperion/Voice via LibraryThing)