One Amazing Thing
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Nine people sit in the visa office of an Indian consulate when an earthquake strikes, blocking all exits and making escape impossible. An Army veteran quickly takes charge, gathering supplies and doing his best to keep everyone calm. With nowhere to go and little to do, the diverse group – including a young Muslim-American, an older Caucasian couple, a gothic Chinese-American girl and her grandmother as well as several Indians – wait and wait for a rescue. To pass the time, a young woman named Uma, inspired by the copy of The Canterbury Tales that she was reading when the earthquake hit, proposes that each person tell a story that contains ‘one amazing thing’ they have experienced. The diversion works, and as the room very slowly fills with water secrets are revealed and true feelings are unleashed as each speaker shares his or her one amazing thing.
Each of the stories was unique. An elderly Chinese woman speaks of a long-ago love in India. I never even thought about “Chinatowns” in other countries, but of course this wouldn’t be exclusive to just the United States! So I found her story to be the most interesting. One woman spoke of her dream to open a beauty salon. Another shares her desire to leave her husband, who is sitting right next to her. Each of the stories is intimate and personal, revealing something unexpected about its sharer.
There might be nine different narrators, but unfortunately all of the stories are told in the same voice, that of the author. Divakaruni is a fine author, make no mistake, with a good rhythm and evocative language. But nothing really distinguishes the way Tariq, a Muslim-American bitter about the prejudice he faces daily, and Lily, a Chinese-American teenager speak about themselves. So the entire story rings false, and the elaborate machinations required to create the setting become clichéd. It has that stiff remoteness that often accompanies fairy tales and fables.
The ending is also left wide open for interpretation. Are the nine earthquake survivors rescued? It’s left to the reader to decide.
At only a little over two hundred pages, this is a short, quick read. I could see it working well for discussion groups and book clubs, and I liked that it really showcased different aspects of life in India and in the United States. I just wish the author had spent more time developing her characters, expanding this into a full-length novel or had included fewer people in her disaster scenario. After I read the final page and closed the book, it still felt unfinished, and that left me rather unsatisfied.
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