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The Weight of Heaven: A Novel Paperback – Feb 2 2010
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“Umrigar beautifully illuminates how human relationships are complicated by cultural, geographical, and class divides.” (More Magazine)
From the Back Cover
When Frank and Ellie Benton lose their only child, seven-year-old Benny, to a sudden illness, the perfect life they had built is shattered. Filled with wrenching memories, their Ann Arbor home becomes unbearable, and their marriage founders. Then an unexpected job half a world away in Girbaug, India, offers them an opportunity to start again. But Frank's befriending of Ramesh—a bright, curious boy who quickly becomes the focus of his attentions—will lead the grieving man down an ever-darkening path with stark repercussions.
A devastating look at cultural clashes and divides, Thrity Umrigar's The Weight of Heaven is a rare glimpse of a family and a country struggling under pressures beyond their control.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
A young American couple, Frank and Ellie lost their seven-year-old son, Benny, to a mysterious illness. It was quite unexpected, absolutely heartbreaking and, in their case, polarizing. Frank is unable to explain what happened to him. Following Benny's funeral he felt he should go to Ellie and say something brave and consoling. But, he did not know how. It was if she were a stranger. He equates his marriage to a book he had read in high school and Ellie a character in it that he had forgotten. They are surrounded only by memories, recollections that mock them - a mug that says #1 Mom, a small baseball glove.
Not too long after Benny's death Frank's boss asks him if he wants to head a new factory the company is building in Girbaug, India. Frank declines saying it is not a good time for him to relocate. But, when Ellie hears about the offer she insists that they go, seeing the move as a new start and, most importantly, an opportunity to salvage their marriage and their once shared happiness.
Thus, a clash of cultures and ideas begins. Frank at first looks down on the small city and its inhabitants. But eventually he is drawn to Ramesh, the nine-year-old son of their housekeepers, almost to the point of seeing him as a surrogate son. This was not at all in Ellie's plan but she feels there is little she can do.
Grief recovery can be a long, painful process; Umriger deftly paints this journey with deft and understanding pen. She is an extraordinary writer; The Weight Of Heaven merits not only attention but accolades as well.
- Gail Cooke
The stage is now set as Umrigar begins her lyrical tale even as she counterbalances the death of a popular union leader and the germinating a labor dispute that begins to germinate with that of the devastating personal tragedy of Frank and Ellie, and their son Benny now gone, only his memories left behind "mocking their earlier smug happiness. Ellie tries to see India as a fresh start, a chance to save their troubled marriage, to start clean in a new place and the possibility of banishing their once Edenic life in Ann Arbor Michigan. In reality though, the move does little to assuage the couple's Ellie's bitterness and unspoken accusations.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In her new novel we meet Frank and Ellie Benton, a grief stricken couple from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who have just lost their seven year old son Benny, after a short illness. Unable to cope with this horrific loss, Frank accepts a new assignment running a factory, Herbal Solutions, in Girbaug, India, a coastal village near Bombay.
Unfortunately, the factory and its Third World workers are in the midst of a labor dispute over low wages. Frank calls the workers "lazy", and his wife sees the workers as justified. Ellie sides with the workers, suggesting that Frank give them a few "rupees" to make them feel like they "won". Even in India, Frank and Ellie are conflicted. Frank has difficulties understanding why his workers don't act like his workers did in America. This additional conflict only adds to the pain he is still experiencing in India over the loss of his son. Ellie on the other hand sees her new surroundings as an opportunity to help the less fortunate women in the village (she is a psychologist/therapist), and believes there is so much to teach these poor women that she sees at a local health clinic. She is determined to not let grief define her life, because she believes her son would not have wanted that.
Frank before long begins to find some comfort tutoring Ramesh, the young son of the couple's housekeeper. The boy is very bright and eager to learn. Before long, his interest in helping the boy becomes an obsession and new conflicts arise between Frank and Prakash, the boy's resentful, bitter, father. Frank will do anything to keep that bright and personable boy close by, no matter what it takes.
The Weight of Heaven is a hauntingly beautiful story about cultural divides and misunderstandings. It is a story about loss and working through grief, and one of those rare books that forces you as the reader to take stock of your life, and to think about the things that really matter most. The ending is shocking, but in some strange way--- wonderful. I am happy to say that this is one of those rare books, that left an imprint with me long after the final page was turned. There are so many beautiful passages that I found myself reading over and over again; a true gem. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
DO NOT MISS THIS ONE!
But the last part of the book was deeply disappointing for me. Like Chris Cleave in Little Bee, Umrigar seemed to have written her characters into a dilemma that only a HEAVY authorial hand could solve, and suddenly characters were doing things not organic to their apparent natures. Could Frank, who had suffered so greatly from the absence of a father and the loss of a son, really behave as he does? Only if he'd had a complete break from reality, which Umrigar does not convince us of at all. Instead, his actions are supposed to be the bold-stroke end result of his callous attitude towards India, towards the Indian people he does not fully value, but that is such a giant stretch. Earlier incidents much more realistically and truthfully show how cultural blindness and a lack of understanding can have deadly, unwanted effects, but Frank's outrageous and obviously perilous actions make no sense on a personal level. Uninformed, self-obsessed, agonized and lacking in empathy? Sure, that is Frank. Wholly without the most essential fundamentals of morality? No way. There is never any reason to believe he is that unhinged from his humanity. He is painted for nearly all of the book as lost not soulless, but in the end, seems overtaken by Umrigar's desire to hammer home her point more forcefully than necessary,.
Equally disappointing was the abandoning of Ramesh as a full character. He sort of fritters away and becomes just a pawn in Frank's drama, which seemed unsettling given that the book is an indictment of the dominance of the American view. In the end, we have only Frank's view and Ramesh goes back to being a cipher. That seemed a lost opportunity.
Umrigar is incredibly talented and has a lot to say -- I look forward to her writing another novel that hits the mark the way The Space Between Us did.
The author is a fantastically talented writer who unfortunately seems to never get beyond the most basic of stories and the most banal cliches. There are clearly a lot of emotions in this book, some of which are indeed believable, however adding some complexity to the characters would perhaps have added to their depth. The characters are very black and white and exceedingly stereotypical. The book deals with the issues of perceived American Imperialism, the impact of multinational corporation on small towns. That said it does not explore any of these issues in a seemingly comprehensive, unbiased way and uses the cliches to add to the predictability of the characters and the story line.
I have read most of the books written by Thrity Umrigar including her memoir First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood (P.S.), but I have been exceedingly disappointed in the lack of dimensionality in the last few novels written by her and this current one is no exception. I highly recommend reading Bombay Time: A Novel, that is a great piece of work by her. On a personal note, I did write to her after I read that book to tell her I had enjoyed it a lot and she wrote back to me a non-form e-mail, which I think says a lot about the author.
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.
The husband blames the wife for their son's death and the wife's thoughts are somewhat less clear. Chapters are written from 3-4 different character's perspectives and rotate as needed to tell the story line. I found the husband's thought processes to be somewhat unbelievable and could never really engage in the story. It's a sad read, as any book would be about this topic and has an even sadder ending. If you really liked the author's other books, you will probably like this, but if not, then keep looking.