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Elle Magazine

'The Weight of Heaven,' by Thrity Umrigar
By Corrie Pikul | March 22, 2009 11:00 a.m.

The opening of Thrity Umrigar’s fourth novel, The Weight of Heaven (Harper), almost—but not quite—prepares us for the torrent of heartache and anguish to come as attractive, successful Frank and Ellie Benton reel from the sudden death of their only child. When Frank is offered a job in India, the couple invests tentative hope in the move, expecting a land of snake charmers and sacred cows that will help them forget—and maybe salvage their crumbling marriage.
Unfortunately for the Bentons, this book is no Eat, Pray, Love, and India has other plans for them. Managing a factory in a small village, Frank is plunged into a volatile labor dispute and endless other struggles. The landscape and culture, both evocatively depicted by the India-born Umrigar, provide Ellie with some distractions, but she is dismayed by India’s effect on her husband, who begins to turn into a stereotypically obtuse American: “She had certainly not imagined a teeming, heaving country that would become a player in their domestic drama.”
And such drama! Frank blames Ellie for their boy’s death and becomes obsessed with the son of the couple’s domestic help. Umrigar loads her characters (especially Frank) with so much psychological baggage that it can be hard to emotionally connect with them. But like Ellie, who at one point abandons herself ecstatically to the music and dancing at the village Diwali festival, we’re pulled along by the intensity of this sweepingly cinematic story.

 

More.com

Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2009

Instant Classic: The Weight of Heaven

Chitra Divakaruni's review of The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar (Harper).
By Chitra Divakaruni

The protagonists in this brave new novel are a departure from the Parsi (Indians of Persian origin) characters of her first three books. A Parsi herself, Thrity Umrigar does a commendable job of exploring the inner landscape of an American couple, Frank and Ellie Benton, who emigrate from Michigan to Girbaug, India, in the wake of their young son's death. They hope that, in a place untainted by heartbreak, they will be able to repair their marriage. Ellie pictures the country as "the backdrop, the wall paper before which she and Frank would enact their family drama of estrangement, healing, and reconciliation."

At first, India is a friendly refuge. The Bentons settle into an oceanfront bungalow, complete with housekeepers, and Frank begins work as the head of HerbalSolutions, an American manufacturer of a diabetes drug made from the leaves of local trees. But trouble breaks out in the HerbalSolutions factory after the suspicious death of an activist who had been fighting for the local people's right to the leaves. Soon Frank and Ellie are embroiled in the drama of a country that is nothing like the "exotic, spiritual, mysterious entity that was a creation of the Western imagination."

Umrigar's depiction of the political troubles that plague the Bentons sometimes descends into the polemical. (There are numerous references to Americans' exploiting indigenous peoples, as well as to the military atrocities in Iraq.) Their cultural bafflement, however, is masterfully depicted, as when Ellie attempts to connect with her new community by volunteering at a clinic that educates village women -- only to be insulted and threatened by one of the husbands.

The most perceptive and moving segments focus on personal relationships, especially the powerful, troubling bond that forms between Frank and Ramesh, the brilliant young son of his housekeepers.

Frank showers the boy with expensive gifts, angering Ramesh's father, who is torn between gratitude and jealousy. Ellie, meanwhile, resents that her husband has so quickly found a substitute for their son.

Although events take a melodramatic turn, Umrigar beautifully illuminates how human relationships are complicated by cultural, geographical, and class divides.

.

Marie Claire Magazine

 THE WEIGHT OF HEAVEN BY THRITY UMRIGAR (HARPER)
by Katie Charles

Thanks to the boffo success of Eat, Pray, Love, readers have expectations for the American-seeking-enlightenment-in-India genre, and Umrigar smartly serves up her revelations in monsoon season with odes to spicy food. For Midwesterners Frank and Ellie Benton, who arrive in search of healing after their 7-year-old dies from a freak illness, India is a dizzying refuge where grief is a shared condition, like traffic and pollution. This is a big, sweeping story that crisscrosses cultures, traditions, and conflicts, but it's anchored by the persistent hope that tomorrow will bring relief.
—Katie Charles

 

Publisher's Weekly

The Weight of Heaven Thrity Umrigar.
Harper, $25.95 (384p)
ISBN 978-0-06-147254-1

Umrigar (The Space Between Us) continues her exploration of cultural divides in this beautifully written and incisive novel about an American couple's experience in India. Frank and Ellie Benton, grappling with the death of their seven-year-old son, move from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Girbaug, India, where Frank takes a job running a factory. While he tackles the barriers faced by an educated, wealthy American in charge of a Third World work force, Ellie, a psychologist, makes inroads with the impoverished locals at a health clinic. Frank has a difficult time adjusting at work, and at home he takes an interest in their housekeepers' son, Ramesh, and begins tutoring him. While Frank buries his grief by helping Ramesh, he ends up in competition with the boy's bitter father, Prakash, and further damaging his already troubled marriage. Umrigar digs into the effects of grief on a relationship and the many facets of culture clash—especially American capitalism's impact on a poor country—but it is the tale of how Frank's interest in Ramesh veers into obsession and comes to a devastating end that provides the gripping through line. Umrigar establishes herself as a singularly gifted storyteller. (Apr.)

 

KIRKUS REVIEWS
March 1, 2009
Umrigar, Thrity
THE WEIGHT OF HEAVEN

Sorrow turns to obsession when Ellie and Frank Benton move from Ann Arbor, Mich., to India shortly after the death of their seven-year-old son. Frank’s employer, HerbalSolutions, harvests and manufactures a diabetes remedy in the village of Girbaug, and Frank, at Ellie’s urging, is to run the plant. They are escaping from the empty bedroom their son once occupied, from the empty weekends they fill with long aimless drives, from the thousand memories they have of their happy boy, killed quickly by meningococcal fever. In India, Ellie and Frank find a reprieve from their heartache, but escape is hardly a cure. After a year and a half, Ellie loves India, has found a best friend in former journalist Nandita and a sense of purpose in working to improve the lives of the villagers. For Frank, though, India offers no simple salve. As the symbol of corporate America using up its natural resources, he deals with labor disputes, bribery and even the death of a union activist who was trying to improve conditions at HerbalSolutions. The only bright spot for Frank is Ramesh, young son of the Bentons’ maid and cook. As Frank becomes increasingly attached to the boy, his father Prakash becomes jealous, irritated by the rich Westerner who can lure his son with expensive gifts, free time and promises of an American education. It is obvious to Ellie that Ramesh is a replacement for their dead son, but what she can’t fathom is Frank’s vitriolic attitude toward Prakash, and increasingly, all India. Umrigar’s portrait of Frank’s descent into obsessive madness is well paced, as are her descriptions of the couple’s loneliness together, but the novel stumbles with two long flashbacks—one describing Frank and Ellie’s courtship and the other Benny’s death—that add little. By the end, Frank’s preoccupation turns to wickedness and violence. Not as unified as Umrigar’s previous novels (If Today Be Sweet, 2007, etc.), but an unflinching portrait of parental bereavement.

 

Library Journal Reviews

February 1, 2009

The Weight of Heaven
BYLINE: Susanne Wells
SECTION: REVIEWS; Fiction; Pg. 68
LENGTH: 235 words

Umrigar, Thrity. The Weight of Heaven. Harper: HarperCollins . Apr. 2009. c.384p. ISBN 978-0-06-147254-1 . $25.95. F

Frank and Ellie are two attractive people who have basically led charmed lives. Frank's absent father notwithstanding, they each grew up in fairly secure surroundings and attended college and professional school, meeting and marrying and living in bliss. Suddenly, the world spins out of control when their seven-year-old son dies from meningitis. Soon afterward, they have an opportunity to make a work-related move to a seaside town in India, providing the panacea that will help them heal from their loss. As educated, liberal, progressive Americans, they cannot anticipate how they will react as they become part of the class struggle within Indian society; nor can they know how attached they will become to the son of their servants. Although it may be risky to latch on to bright young Ramesh, they convince themselves that they are helping the boy by providing him with things that his parents could never afford. Self-deception runs rampant, and Frank is eventually overcome by emotional turmoil, which leads him to make a fatal error in judgment. Umrigar (First Darling of the Morning ) finely plumbs the depths of the human heart, from the heights of joy and passion to the very deepest despair. Recommended for all fiction collections.-Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.

Cleveland.com Review

In The Weight of Heaven,' story of a family tragedy is also a morality tale about global economics

Sunday, April 12, 2009
Ellen Emry Heltzel

As a writer who straddles two cultures, Thrity Umri gar takes a gimlet-eyed view of both. In "The Weight of Heaven," the Case Western Re serve Univer sity professor casts her na tive India as "nobody's wall paper," a crowded, cor rupt and inces santly striving country rather than the spiritual haven some Westerners imagine. As for her adopted home, the United States, she sees it as a quick-fix culture where "even grief comes with an expiration date."

This is the template on which she builds her new novel.

In "The Weight of Heaven," a couple from Michigan have relocated to a town near Mumbai to escape a terrible loss -- the death of their 7-year-old son. Frank Benton runs the Indian operation of his friend's company, HerbalSolutions. His wife, Ellie, volunteers at a women's health clinic.

Unfortunately, HerbalSolutions' fortunes rest on a shallow platform: a government lease giving it access to a forest of trees that yield a key ingredient in its SugarGo line for diabeticsThose same trees provide locals with firewood and leaves that they brew and chew. The villagers don't take the intrusion lightly.

When a young protester against the company dies in police custody, Frank suspects his right-hand man, Gulab, was a party to the death. But still grieving his child, Frank focuses instead on Prakash, the bright young son of the couple that serves as the Bentons' cook and housekeeper.

Ellie watches the growing attachment between Frank and Prakash with conflicted feelings, realizing -- as Frank apparently does not -- that he's vainly searching to fill the hole in his heart. Prakash's mom, however, abets the cause, sensing an opportunity she cannot provide. His father, meanwhile, smolders in the background.

Frank's increasingly grandiose plans for himself and Prakash create the tension that moves the story. But Umrigar has a larger idea woven into the cloth.

Frank typifies the foreign businessman who accepts the job but not the culture, registering only "the lethal combination of pity and aggravation that India always seems to arouse." His company's predicament in India mirrors the one in his own household: In both cases, he's confronted with the accusation -- to which he's largely oblivious -- that he's appropriating someone else's property.

In each situation, there's a complicit party on the opposite side. With HerbalSolutions, it's the Indian government and Frank's amoral assistant, Gulab; with Prakash, it's Frank's mother, Edna. Blinkered self- interest rests at the novel's core. Umrigar is keen on depicting the Indian skill for being simultaneously obsequious and passive-aggressive, depending on what works.

A shop owner assaults Ellie with one of the book's typical colloquialisms: "Nice-nice gold silver jewelry we're having," he says. Even though she is warned away, Ellie opens her wallet. Taking and giving in large measure -- in "The Weight of Heaven," that's the American hallmark.

Umrigar carries a burden as heavy as the title by using a tale of personal tragedy to depict the balance of power in global economics. Although her writing occasionally sags into cliche and the commonplace, her observations are dispassionate and astute enough to deliver at both levels. This is a morality tale tuned to our times.

Heltzel, formerly book editor of The Oregonian, is co-author of the reading guide, "Between the Covers."

To reach Ellen Emry Heltzel: books@plaind.com

 

Christian Science Monitor- Book Reviews

The Weight of Heaven
Devastated by the loss of their child, an American couple try to rebuild their lives in India

By Yvonne Zipp  |  April 10, 2009 edition

These days, lots of American businessmen show up to work with a desk full of worrisome problems. But it’s fair to say that most don’t have to deal with a worker who’s died in police custody, apparently having been to beaten to death. Even fewer would have to face the knowledge that their chief of security ordered the arrest and the beating as a result of misunderstanding a hastily muttered “take care of it” on the way to a meeting.

Suffice it to say, Frank Benton, head of operations in Girbaug, India, for NaturalSolutions herbal remedies, is having a bad day.

“As he jumped out of the vehicle under the protection of the umbrella Satish was holding out for him, Frank felt unreal, had the feeling of being trapped in one of those movies based on a Graham Greene novel,” Thrity Umrigar writes in her powerful new novel, The Weight of Heaven.

Suspecting your life could have been written by Greene would be enough to send me running for the nearest airport, but Frank and Ellie have already fled once. They moved to India after their little boy died of a sudden illness, in an effort to rebuild, or at least to live in a place that wasn’t steeped in memories of Benny.

“The Arts and Crafts bungalow in Ann Arbor was positively shimmering with mockery.” Ellie held out hope that India could provide healing; Frank was mostly looking for “a country where there was no possibility of running into of his son’s teachers.”

Sixteen months after Benny’s death, the change of scenery hasn’t abated the Bentons’ grief or helped them reunite.

“[Frank] knew he was losing Ellie, that she was slipping out of his hands like the sand that lay just beyond the front yard, but he seemed unable to prevent the slow erosion. What she wanted from him – forgiveness – he could not grant her. What he wanted from her – his son back – she couldn’t give.”
There are a few generic opening pages that rely too much on worn out expressions of grief, such as missing “the patter” of Benny’s size four feet. (Note: Not only is this a cliché, but based on daily observation, I’m here to tell you that seven-year-old boys’ feet do not “patter.” Stomp, tromp, skip, run, thunder, splash, kick, and jump – yes. Patter? Not so much.)

But then Umrigar really gets going, and the clichés get brushed off like barnacles on a fast-moving ship. Twisty, brimming with dark humor and keen moral insight, “The Weight of Heaven” packs a wallop on both a literary and emotional level.

Bring along a flashlight – despite the Indian sunshine, you’re going to need it.

Umrigar (“The Space Between Us”) examines the dark moral recesses of one American liberal couple, who can’t seem to cope now that their formerly charmed life has been ripped away.

Frank’s only source of joy is the child of the Bentons’ housekeeper and cook. Nine-year-old Ramesh is bright, athletic, egotistical, and alive, and what starts out as tutoring and basketball lessons slides into a bitter tug-of-war between Frank and Ellie and Ramesh’s father, Prakash.

His mother, Edna, is all for the advantages the Americans can provide her son. Prakash is illiterate and an alcoholic, and Ramesh’s chances for a future commensurate with his intellectual gifts seem dim until Frank comes along.

Umrigar is a master of delineating the ethical lines Frank and Ellie cross, with, at least at first, the best of intentions.

She replaces Greene’s Roman Catholic guilt with secular liberal guilt, and the substitution works just fine. There’s a hideously awkward Christmas celebration – to which Ramesh is invited, while his parents remain in their shack – where Frank gives the boy a new computer. (Prakash can’t even afford a new basketball for his son.)

Outraged by what he sees as the wholesale purchase of his son’s affections, Prakesh takes wire cutters to the machine. Then there’s the scene where Ellie, a psychologist who is usually far more sensitive to the rights of Ramesh’s parents, threatens to fire Prakash if he doesn’t let them take the boy on an already-promised overnight trip to Bombay.

(Ellie can’t face Frank’s disappointment, but is immediately horrified by what she’s done – unable to imagine a single situation at home in Michigan where she would override a parent’s decision about his own child.)

The colonial echoes are clear and incredibly uncomfortable for Ellie, who has come to love her life in India, and volunteers at a clinic run by her best friend, Nandita. (Nandita, by the way, is a fabulous character – a worldly former journalist who combines warmth with a dry sense of humor.)

“Most of the time, Ellie was at a loss as to what advice to give [the women at the clinic]. All the things that she had suggested to her mostly white, middle-class clientele in Michigan seemed laughable here. What could she ask these women to do? Go to the gym to combat depression? Take Prozac when they could barely afford wheat for bread? Join Al Anon to learn to accept the things and behaviors they couldn’t change? These women were masters of acceptance – already they accepted droughts and floods and infections and disease and hunger.”

Frank, meanwhile, is floundering at work. In addition to protests sparked by the union organizer’s murder (the police helpfully label him a “terrorist”), the villagers have been denied access – in the name of global trade – to the trees they used for centuries for healing. It doesn’t help that Ramesh is the only person for whom Frank has any kind of unmixed affection.

The adults befuddle him with a mix of too-invasive personal questions and obsequiousness, and he finds it hard to operate in “the absence of the sheen of politeness that covered all interactions in America like Saran Wrap.” His dealings with everyone else become tainted by “feeling that lethal combination of pity and aggravation that India always seems to arouse.”

Umrigar, a journalist for the Boston Globe, is a descriptive master. Take the Bentons’ entrance to Bombay with Ramesh: “Bombay. Such a deceptive word, so soft-sounding, like sponge cake in the mouth. Even the new name for the city, Mumbai, carries that round softness, so that a visitor is unprepared for the reality of this giant, bewildering city, which is an assault, a punch in the face. Everything about the city attacks you at once, as you leave the tranquility of the surrounding hills and enter it – the rows of slums that look like something built for and by giant, erratic birds rather than humans; the old, crumbling buildings that have not seen a lick of paint in decades and many of which are held up by scaffolding; the new, tall buildings that rise from the wretched streets and point like thin fingers toward a dirty, polluted sky; the insane tango of auto rickshaws and cars and bicycles and scooters and bullock carts competing for their inch of space….”

It soon becomes apparent that India, teeming with life, is not going to be the scenic “wallpaper” for a loving, soft-focus reconciliation, but instead a witness to something more devastating. Umrigar delays the final descent with two flashbacks that show how much the Bentons have lost, but when it comes, the knockout ending is enough to convince anyone of the value of Ellie’s usual advice to her clients: Don’t make any big decisions for at least a year after a life-altering event.

If only she and Frank had listened.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

 

Cleveland Plain Dealer Review

In The Weight of Heaven,' story of a family tragedy is also a morality tale about global economics

Sunday, April 12, 2009
Ellen Emry Heltzel

As a writer who straddles two cultures, Thrity Umri gar takes a gimlet-eyed view of both. In "The Weight of Heaven," the Case Western Re serve Univer sity professor casts her na tive India as "nobody's wall paper," a crowded, cor rupt and inces santly striving country rather than the spiritual haven some Westerners imagine. As for her adopted home, the United States, she sees it as a quick-fix culture where "even grief comes with an expiration date."

This is the template on which she builds her new novel.

In "The Weight of Heaven," a couple from Michigan have relocated to a town near Mumbai to escape a terrible loss -- the death of their 7-year-old son. Frank Benton runs the Indian operation of his friend's company, HerbalSolutions. His wife, Ellie, volunteers at a women's health clinic.

Unfortunately, HerbalSolutions' fortunes rest on a shallow platform: a government lease giving it access to a forest of trees that yield a key ingredient in its SugarGo line for diabeticsThose same trees provide locals with firewood and leaves that they brew and chew. The villagers don't take the intrusion lightly.

When a young protester against the company dies in police custody, Frank suspects his right-hand man, Gulab, was a party to the death. But still grieving his child, Frank focuses instead on Prakash, the bright young son of the couple that serves as the Bentons' cook and housekeeper.

Ellie watches the growing attachment between Frank and Prakash with conflicted feelings, realizing -- as Frank apparently does not -- that he's vainly searching to fill the hole in his heart. Prakash's mom, however, abets the cause, sensing an opportunity she cannot provide. His father, meanwhile, smolders in the background.

Frank's increasingly grandiose plans for himself and Prakash create the tension that moves the story. But Umrigar has a larger idea woven into the cloth.

Frank typifies the foreign businessman who accepts the job but not the culture, registering only "the lethal combination of pity and aggravation that India always seems to arouse." His company's predicament in India mirrors the one in his own household: In both cases, he's confronted with the accusation -- to which he's largely oblivious -- that he's appropriating someone else's property.

In each situation, there's a complicit party on the opposite side. With HerbalSolutions, it's the Indian government and Frank's amoral assistant, Gulab; with Prakash, it's Frank's mother, Edna. Blinkered self- interest rests at the novel's core. Umrigar is keen on depicting the Indian skill for being simultaneously obsequious and passive-aggressive, depending on what works.

A shop owner assaults Ellie with one of the book's typical colloquialisms: "Nice-nice gold silver jewelry we're having," he says. Even though she is warned away, Ellie opens her wallet. Taking and giving in large measure -- in "The Weight of Heaven," that's the American hallmark.

Umrigar carries a burden as heavy as the title by using a tale of personal tragedy to depict the balance of power in global economics. Although her writing occasionally sags into cliche and the commonplace, her observations are dispassionate and astute enough to deliver at both levels. This is a morality tale tuned to our times.

Heltzel, formerly book editor of The Oregonian, is co-author of the reading guide, "Between the Covers."

To reach Ellen Emry Heltzel: books@plaind.com



From novelist Thrity Umrigar, a story of loss and healing amid a clash of cultures

By Sandip Roy for the Mercury News

When the West goes to India, India's main role is usually to be a catalyst for some life-changing experience on the part of the visitor. After an adventure, nirvana or just dusky romance, the visitor returns to London or New York.

Thrity Umrigar is acutely aware of this baggage of the "transformed-by-India" literary oeuvre. With "The Weight of Heaven," she tries to re-imagine the genre by showing the impact of cultural collision not just on Westerners but on the Indians as well.

Frank and Ellie Benton, a made-for-each other couple, find their golden world imploding after they lose their 7-year-old son, Benny, to a sudden illness. Frank takes a job managing his company's operations in Girbaug, India, where the Bentons hope to escape memories of Benny.

"Above all, (Frank) comforted himself with the thought of being in a country with a new moon, a new coastline, a new sky. Of living in a house whose walls did not carry the telltale pencil marks of measuring a child's height."

But in Girbaug, Frank finds himself increasingly drawn to their housekeeper's bright young son, Ramesh. First it's a little help with his homework, then some basketball, then weekend trips. The affection starts metastasizing into a darker obsession, much to Ellie's alarm.

Prakash, the boy's father, an illiterate drunk, fumes after spending hours putting a rubber patch on Ramesh's punctured basketball only to have Frank show up at their door with a brand-new Advertisement one. Ramesh revels in the attention. His mother greedily grasps the future the American dangles before her son.

The clash of two very unequal forces involving these two families is also happening on a macro level. Frank's company has bought rights from the Indian government to local trees whose leaves have anti-diabetic properties. But the villagers who have for generations harvested the leaves are left out in the cold, on the wrong side of globalization.

Frank is not a pillaging imperial colonialist, but when a labor dispute at the factory goes horribly wrong, he finds himself floundering in a country that seems increasingly foreign to him. He suddenly feels closer to the American soldiers in Iraq, as if he could now comprehend "their contempt and hatred for a culture they had come to save but was destroying them."

Frank and Ellie find their beliefs severely tested in India. Ellie, a therapist, starts volunteering and quickly feels out of depth as she meets women trapped in cycles of violence between their boorish husbands and impoverished mothers-in-law.

"What could she ask these women to do?" wonders Ellie. "Go to the gym to combat depression? Take Prozac when they could barely afford wheat for their bread?"

Umrigar does not provide pat answers. Instead, to her great credit, she presents India, not as some passive, helpless victim, but as its own agent, smiling at its rich American suitors and manipulating them at the same time.

With unflinching precision, Umrigar conveys the soul-shattering emptiness that comes from losing a child. But where other writers would have kept the lens squarely on the Americans, she gives us the back stories of Ramesh's parents and their unlikely interreligious romance. She paints the interior mind-scapes of her characters with as much delicate care as she lavishes on the landscapes of Girbaug.

Sometimes she overwrites, as if not trusting her reader to get the nuances. Frank throws up in one scene, and Umrigar stays a sentence too long with him: "It was too dark to see the contents of tonight's dinner, but Frank had the inescapable feeling that he was throwing up more than food — that he was bringing up bruised and beaten flesh, gallons of spilled blood, the unbearable, inexpressible anguish of a bereaved mother and the lost promise of a life that he may have unwittingly taken with his careless words."

On the other hand when a much-planned pivotal trip to America with Ramesh doesn't happen, we don't get to see Ramesh's reaction. And when Umrigar goes into a flashback to recount the Bentons' romance and Benny's death, it feels like an unwarranted detour from the conflict that is coming to a boil in Girbaug.

In the end, the book is about the loss of innocence — for Ramesh, for Frank and Ellie, for India itself. Perhaps it's only appropriate for a novel that begins with a young couple banished from a perfect life in their own private Eden to end in a grove of trees where age—old traditions are being bottled up for sale by private corporations. It is a loss of Eden on all fronts.

Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show "New America Now" on KALW-FM (91.7).

 

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