If Today Be Sweet: A stunning new novel from Thrity Umrigar, the bestselling author of The Space Between Us, which explores the trials one woman faces after the death of her husband. If Today Be Sweet is rich with emotion, beauty, texture, and, of course, the magnificent prose that is Umrigar's trademark.
Recent Reviews: (Updated 4/2008)
The International Examiner
Umrigar's novel presents what is lost and what is gained in the Indian immigrant experience
Reviewed by Nalini Iyer
Thrity Umrigar is an Indian-born, Cleveland-based writer who has published a memoir and two novels prior to "If Today Be Sweet." Her last novel, "The Space Between Us," was published to great acclaim in 2006. That novel exemplified Umrigar's gifts as a storyteller, particularly her ability to create psychologically nuanced characters, to weave a skilful narrative with grace and polish, and to sensitively portray the intricacies of class and gender in the daily relationship between a middle class Parsi woman, Sera, and her maidservant, Bhima.__In "If Today Be Sweet," Umrigar shifts her focus on to the Indian immigrant experience in the United States to examine what is lost and what is gained when people make the difficult choice of leaving one country and settling in another. As an Indian-born writer who migrated to the United States at age 21 and who has since claimed U.S. citizenship, Umrigar has a deep personal understanding of the immigrant's struggle. However, this novel is not a thinly veiled autobiography nor does it examine the life of a young immigrant as do the works of many South Asian writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Umrigar's protagonist is Tehmina, a recent widow, whose only son lives in a fictional suburb of Cleveland with his American wife and young son. Tehmina, who is visiting her son over Christmas, has to make a choice about where she will live the rest of her life. If she were to stay in Bombay, she would be independent and surrounded by the familiar including her memories of a beautiful life with her husband. But, she would be away from her son and his family. If she were to move to the United States, it would have an impact on her son and his family and she would have to acculturate herself to life in the United States. She would become dependent on her son. Tehmina's dilemma becomes intense in the week between Christmas and New Year, and because of her accidental involvement with two children in the neighborhood, Tehmina experiences an epiphany that allows her to make a decision.
Although Tehmina is the central character of the novel, Umrigar creates a cast of supporting characters including the ghost of Rustom (Tehmina's dead husband), her son Sorab, her daughter-in-law Susan, her grandchild Cavas, and Percy her adopted son - all of these characters add a fullness and depth to the narrative. Umrigar also manages to avoid cliches such as an awkward relationship between Susan and Tehmina fraught with predictable interracial issues or creating a dichotomy between "tradition" and "modernity" in writing about intergenerational conflict.
However, when the novel explores Sorab's experience of discrimination in the workplace, Umrigar's narrative relies on some predictable characters such as the predatory and superficial young white female boss, the benevolent, older white male head of the company and his maternal and wise wife. Umrigar's depiction of prejudice in the corporate world is a little naïve as the narrative leaves us with a happy ending where Sorab is rewarded for his loyalty and the evil white woman is dismissed by the benevolent patriarch. Nevertheless Umrigar's use of a little magic realism, her portrayal of Tehmina's dilemma, and her exploration of the emotional impact of migration make this novel a good read.
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY'S THE BOOK MAVEN
By Bethanne Patrick
Recommended Reading: 'If Today Be Sweet' August 2, 2007
I have a confession to make. Since the first time I picked up MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN, I've been a pushover for anything Anglo-Indian in fiction. It's not just the joys of Bollywood references and the mad fun that is Hinglish; it is, of course, the fact that Anglo-Indian authors (Rushdie, Lahiri, Divakaruni, Seth, Chandra) actually do new things with novels without sacrificing good stories.
Even when those authors, whose multicultural heritages and lives have steeped them in language play, choose to "play it straight" and write a simpler narrative, the result is often richer than it might be in the hands of an American or British novelist. One of the American Anglo-Indian novelists whose work I like best is Thrity Umrigar. Umrigar is a serious journalist with a Ph.D. in English whose 2001 debut, BOMBAY TIME, has stayed with me for years, like the memory of a truly delicious and satisfying meal. The description of a long-married couple leafing through their satin-covered wedding album together remains one of the most tender looks at nostalgia I've ever read.
"Tender" is a good word to apply to Umrigar's books, as one critic did in a recent review of her latest novel, IF TODAY BE SWEET. Tehmina "Tammy" Sethna is a recent Parsi widow who has landed in suburban Cleveland because her beloved and very successful son settled there with his American wife after finishing college. For decades she relied on her gregarious, decisive husband Rustom; now that she has lost him and left their Bombay home, she feels more dithering and ambivalent about everything than she ever did. Although her son Sorab and his WASPy wife Susan try to make her feel at home, she gets on their nerves (and puts a damper on their lovemaking). Although her grandson Cavas, or "Cookie," adores her, he is an American child with our culture's casual indifference towards societal elders. Her closest friend and boon companion turns out to be the immensely large and comforting Eve Metzenbaum, whose own grown son's casual American indifference towards his mother infuriates Tammy.
What angers Tammy much more, however, is the cruelty and abuse she sees going on next door, where the owner's trashy sister-in-law mistreats her two young sons past the point of Tammy's ability to turn the other way. On Christmas Eve, she takes matters into her own hands, leaps the tall suburban fence between the two houses and rescues the children from their sad situation. Once that occurs, the novel's resolution is swift and nearly glib: Sorab's boss recognizes Tammy's authentic spirit and decides to promote her son, the rescued boys are happy with their aunt and uncle, and Tammy not only asserts her identity but her independence as well.
That doesn't matter one bit. In fact, despite its glibness, the conclusion doesn't feel tacked on but rather natural. That's because Umrigar is not playing for plot; she's writing to explore the nuances of life on the margins. What does it mean to lose your partner? Can a single elderly woman make a difference? Is it better to be honorable, or successful? And tell me --- where is the Amer-Anglo-Indian border? In Umrigar's beautifully evoked universe, it's shifting all the time.
Transplanted in American Suburbia
By LAKSHMI MANI, Jul 19, 2007
The American Dream and the hope for a better life beckon the young to this country. It is another story when you are middle-aged and faced with the choice of giving up a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in India and starting anew. Assimilation is not easy when you have lived in India for more than half-a-century. As you grow older, you are increasingly reluctant to meld into the melting pot and lose your cultural identity.
In her latest novel, If Today Be Sweet, Umrigar presents the dilemmas confronting Tehemina Sethna, a middle-aged widow faced with the choice of going back to her beloved Bombay or settling down in the United States with her only son Sorab, who is all the family she has left. It is a difficult choice for her but time is running out. Things have not been the same ever since she came to Cleveland to live with Sorab. All her life she had been totally dependent on her protective husband to make all the decisions for her. The sudden loss leaves her unequipped to lead life on her own.
Sorab brings his mother to suburban Cleveland to live with him, his American wife Susan, and son Cookie soon after his father's fatal heart attack in Bombay. Susan exudes good old American optimism, a can-do spirit and Midwestern pragmatism. But their idyllic life is ruffled with the arrival of Tehemina. There is a growing rift between Sorab and Susan.
Lately, Sorab is also facing problems with his mean-spirited boss, Grace Butler. Ambition propels him in one direction, while homesickness pulls him towards the land of his birth and upbringing, especially after the loss of his father. It's a clash of two value systems-the isolated nuclear family and the gregarious joint family.
In her authorial essay, Umrigar points out the price of immigration: along with the excitement, the optimism, the belief, there is doubt and loss and mourning.
We see the impersonal efficiency of American suburbia through Tehemina's grieving eyes. She must pull herself out of her memories of Bombay, overcome her isolation, and move on.
The ghostly conversational link between Tehemina and Rustom, her departed husband, is a clever narrative device that portrays Tehemina's gradual severance from her dependent past and passage to an independent existence in America.
THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
TORN BETWEEN TWO HOMES
A WIDOW'S CHOICE: BUILD A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, OR RETURM TO MUMBAI?
Sunday, June 24, 2007
ANN M. FOX, Special to the Observer
Like Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" and Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss," Thrity Umrigar's latest novel, "If Today Be Sweet," depicts the immigrant experience of Indians in America.
Its central character, Tehmina Sethna, is recently widowed and a woman on the fence. Dwelling in the dark days of December and her grief, she must decide whether hope means creating a new life with her son's family in suburban Cleveland or returning to her old life among the Parsi community in Mumbai.
As Tehmina compares the two cultures she is poised between, the novel also shows her choice as it has been experienced by immigrants who have preceded her, particularly her son, Sorab.
Unlike Desai, Umrigar does not seem to regard the intersection of East and West as inherently destructive; both the opportunities - and costs - of forging a new life in America are thoughtfully explored. Ultimately, the novel reflects on what makes an individual part of a community, and movingly depicts the heartaches, responsibilities and rewards of family life - among one's own blood relatives as well as one's "family of choice."
In an important subplot, Tehmina weaves herself into the American community by rescuing two abused neighbor children. Yet it's also here that the novel falters. For all its empathy elsewhere, the novel perpetuates some classist attitudes about the American poor; the abusive mother feels like a stereotype rather than a complex character. Nor is the book as descriptively sumptuous as Umrigar's "The Space Between Us.".
Still, its meditation on the complex process of building a new life balances these limitations out.
Tehmina becomes the "architect of her own life" in a way that suggests worlds can intersect and inform one another in a way that enhances each.
Ann M. Fox is a Davidson College English professor.
Umrigar's latest offers a tender portrait of a Bombay widow
and her Americanized son, and the culture clash that ensues.
Tehmina Sethna has been emotionally adrift since her beloved, charismatic husband Rustom
died. She was hoping to find some solace with her only child Sorab in Cleveland, but the long bleak
winter and Sorab's disapproving wife Susan has made the stay awkward at best. Sorab and Susan have
invited Tehmina to leave Bombay for good, move in with them and start life anew, but there seems
little on offer in America but bland opulence. Though her family is in America (including seven-year-
old grandson Cavas) and Tehmina has a good friend in the spirited Eva Metzembaum, the lure of India
and the memories she shared there with Rustom may prove more powerful than the ties of family.
Umrigar shifts nicely between Tehmina and her son Sorab, who's having problems of his own: In India
there would be little question about Tehmina moving in with the family, but can the same deference
be expected of an American wife? Acutely aware of Susan's subtle complaints about Tehmina (she
doesn't rinse out the tub after each use, she's too emotional about her dead husband), Sorab finds he's
becoming slightly afraid of his wife's thin-lipped grimace. Furthermore, while his wife is suggesting
they buy a larger house if Tehmina decides to stay, Sorab's awful new boss is hinting his position is
in jeopardy. Though Sorab and his Indian friends make for a vivid picture of assimilated life in the
American Midwest, the story belongs to Tehmina, who must very soon make a decision about
returning to Bombay (and all the vibrancy it represents) or staying with her remaining family. Though
the ghost of Rustom is advising her, it is Sorab's next-door neighbor who inadvertently helps Tehmina
with her decision-a mother who is abusing her two young sons spurs Tehmina into action, helping
her become the robust, independent woman she was before her husband's death.
Though less expansive than her last novel, Umrigar's intimate portrayal of a mother and son
divided by culture is a convincing testament to the enduring power of place.
LIBRARY JOURNAL STARRED REVIEW
If a theme runs through journalist and best-selling
author Umrigar's latest novel (after The Space Between
Us), it would be that the issues challenging us as
individuals are the same catalysts for the change that
we face as a society. Umrigar once again explores the
intimate world of the Indian woman, but this time, the
setting is not Bombay or even India but Cleveland, OH.
She tells the poignant story of Tehmina "Tammy"
Sethna, a recent widow divided between the life she
led with her husband in India and her current life in
Ohio with her son and his American wife. What might
have been just another story about widowhood is, in
Umrigar's hands, a canvas on which love, death,
family, pain, and personal transformation are subtly
painted. Readers see through Tammy's eyes as she
struggles to understand her new role in life and the
new definition of family. This novel transcends
culture and will appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub
Alert, LJ 2/15/07.-Ed.]-Marika Zemke, West Bloomfield
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY REVIEW
In Umrigar's tender fourth novel, Tehmina "Tammy"
Sethna is torn between two cultures that couldn't be
more different: Bombay and Cleveland. The former is
her homeland, but after her husband's recent death,
she's been staying with her son and his family in
America. Tehmina loves being near grandson Cookie, but
she often feels like an intruder in her American
daughter-in-law's home, and she's disconcerted by the
changes in her son, Sorab, who is stressed from the
corporate rat race. Though Tehmina's loneliness floods
her with memories of her husband, the Parsi community
back in India and her traditional ways, she finds no
small amount of purpose (and celebrity) in Cleveland
after suspecting her neighbor of child abuse and
intervening on the children's behalf. Immigration
laws, meanwhile, force her to decide whether she'll
remain in Cleveland or return to Bombay. Umrigar (The
Space Between Us) shows the unseemly side of American
excess and prejudice while gently reminding readers of
opportunities sometimes taken for granted. (June)
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