Like the Space Between us, The Weight of Heaven deals with cultural and class divisions, but the novel is primarily about entitlement.
Frank and Ellie are reeling over the death of their son, Benny. Ironically, Benny died in America, where an advanced team of medical specialists could do nothing to save him from the fast onset of typhoid. Frank and Ellie flee to India (one of the few remaining countries that still suffers from bouts of the plague) to try and work out their grief. The entire novel is overshadowed by this unfair, precarious nature of life and death; death pays no attention to cultural, social, political, or class divides.
Frank accepts a job transfer to India, placing him in charge of a plant that harvests local tree leaves for medicinal purposes. The company, HerbalSolutions, has bought the land with the trees from the government. However, the local villages feel entitled to the trees, having harvested and used the leaves for centuries. Conflict ensues.
In the meantime, Frank forms an unhealthy attachment with their servant's young boy, Ramesh, using him as a substitute for his own dead son. Because Ramesh's father is an alcoholic, Frank begins to feel entitled to the boy, believing he can give him a better life. Prakash, the boy's father, is bound by his loyalty as a servant, but struggles with his hatred toward his "master" who is stealing his child from under his nose. (Conflict ensues.)
Umrigar is such an elegant writer. I adore her prose. I have gained such insight into the culture of India thanks to her novels.
She delves into the subject of grief like no other author I've ever read. At one point, I had to put the book down, I couldn't stand the gut-wrenching emotion invoked by the character's overwhelming sense of loss and grief. This book is NOT for those who have lost a small child. Umrigar captures the horrific anguish of the parents. For example, Ellie finds herself haunted by thoughts of worms eating at her son's beautiful body. This is difficult stuff to read. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to write.
The politics are ham-fisted at times. Ellie's liberal ideology is over the top. For instance, at a fourth-of-July party in India, she refuses to sing the Star Spangled Banner, insisting America is a terrorist nation. Meanwhile, she employs two servants who do her laundry and fix her meals while she volunteers occasionally in the small, impoverished village they live near.
Umrigar certainly makes a political point, but also demonstrates that there is no black and white when it comes to politics, class relations, etc. It's all a messy business. Her villain's (Frank's chief of security) are not even types; Gulab shows startling sensitivity and has the admirable Indian trait of unabashed loyalty.
This book is so well written but I'm glad I'm finished with it. It was emotionally draining. Strongly recommended, but be forewarned! This is heavy material.