An Almost Amazing Book

by Robinson L

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing aims for greatness … and ultimately falls short.
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I picked up One Amazing Thing on the strength of its awesome premise. When an earthquake strikes an unnamed American city, nine people from different backgrounds are trapped in the Indian consulate. Tempers flare and anxiety runs high, until finally one of them makes a suggestion: each will share in turn a personal story of one amazing thing they've experienced, something they've never told anyone about before.

This is a fantastic set-up for a book, and Divakaruni does a masterful job in the early chapters of establishing the characters, their predicament, and the circumstances which lead to their participation in the “let's all tell a story” game. By the time the first story begins, eight of the nine characters have come into focus as real, believable, multidimensional people—and the ninth quickly fleshes out when she becomes the first person to volunteer a story.

With my background in speculative fiction, I'm accustomed to grand sweeping adventures and universe-menacing dangers. But the power of a danger—and thus, the heroism of the ones who face it—rests not on the scale of the threat, but on how well the writer sells it. This point came home to me during the build-up phase, when the young man, Tariq, becomes trapped under an avalanche of fallen masonry, and the teenage girl, Lily, goes in after him. Lily's courage in crawling through a tunnel of rubble which could collapse on her at any moment, and in staying with Tariq once she's found him, was more palpable and impressive to me than most sword-swinging heroes faced with malevolent dark lords or eldritch abominations from unimaginable dimensions of space and time.

And it seems at first that the nine-people-trapped-in-a-badly-damaged-and-slowly-flooding-Indian-consulate setting will not function merely as a framing device for the nine personal stories the book is ultimately about. The subplots and character arcs continue to develop, interspersed between the stories.

The first two stories were pretty much what I expected and wanted them to be: familiar scenarios presented with sufficient narrative detail to feel fresh and just a little bit touching. Even better, between the tales, we get an opportunity to see what some of the other characters think about the story, which in turn offers us further insights into their own personalities.

Unfortunately, at about this point things begin to come apart. It becomes clear after the fourth or fifth story that instead of relating tales of something incredible they've experienced, most of the characters are just narrating their life stories. This was acceptable in the first story of finding love after a tragic separation, and avoided in the second story of a young poor boy struggling to cope in an insufficiently nurturing environment. But it strikes me as pretty off that almost everyone's “one amazing thing” just happens to involve explaining their life so far—particularly since this emphasis on life stories quickly overtakes the frigging premise of the game. For approximately half of the stories, I couldn't even tell you what the “one amazing thing” was that they were supposedly relating.

This is a problem, because while the stories are mostly well-written and evocative, I often felt myself asking “what was the point of that?” With the “one amazing thing” premise, Divakaruni had a chance to do something unique and compelling. With that element removed, or at least given insufficient focus, the narrative degenerates into a bunch of people sitting around alternately narrating their backstories to each other.

The backstories themselves turned out to be hit-and-miss. Okay, that's an overstatement, as none of them are actively bad, but a lot of them are “okay” and nothing more. Jiang's story is good, as is Mr. Pritchett's, but they're not spectacular. At first I felt this was perfectly fine, because I expected Divakaruni to lead off with her weakest stories, and to present increasingly stronger ones as the book progressed. Instead, those two are among the best of the lot, along with Malathi's and Mr. Mangalam's.

In fact, all of the backstories set in India are vivid and exciting, while the ones set in the United States—except for Mr. Pritchett's—feel flat and lackluster in comparison. In outline they're no worse than the India stories, but in practice they don't provoke as strong a sense of connection and emotional investment, which makes them ultimately feel dissatisfying.

At least, three of them are no worse than the India stories. Tariq's starts out interesting but then degenerates to the point where I can't recall the ending if I try. Lily's sets up a drama surrounding her older brother and his problems in college, only to abandon it at the three-quarter mark so she can have a heartwarming moment with a disabled kid and her recorder, which apparently counts as her “one amazing thing.”

Part of the problem is that for all of Divarkaruni's great characterization and her talent for dreaming up imaginative and plausible life scenarios, she can't seem to bring forth the full emotional impact of her material. I've read authors who've knocked me on my ass with the emotional depth of their work—the late, lamented Terry Pratchett is one; Karen Miller, when she's at the top of her game is another; Melina Marchetta, of course, is a third; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, unfortunately, is not.

A closely related issue is that, like a random person at a campfire narrating an amazing experience they've had, Divakaruni is often unable to provoke a sense of wonder in her stories. Telling someone else about something incredible you've experienced is fairly easy—telling someone about it in such a way that it feels incredible to them as well is a lot more difficult, and I'm afraid Divakaruni doesn't manage it.

The framing device also comes apart a fair bit by the end. The subplots and character arcs which gave the novel added spice either dry up or go out on an almost-indiscernibly subtle note. Granted, this can be viewed as going for a realistic approach, and it's impractical to expect a group of people trapped in a consulate to work out all their issues in the time it takes them to be rescued. I don't expect Malathi to get over her bigotry or Tariq to get over his arrogance or his temper over the course of the book—but I do expect the subplots and character arcs which are emphasized in the book to get some manner of resolution. Sure, it's unrealistic, but it's the sort of thing readers routinely accommodate with their willing suspension of disbelief in exchange for a satisfying story. Taking it away may make the story more realistic, but it makes it less satisfying. It's also artificial the way events seem to conspire to preserve the integrity of the “let's tell our backstories” structure, to the point that rescue comes at almost the exact time the final storyteller finishes up—I find this artificiality a little difficult to swallow at times, but for the most part I accept it because it makes for a more satisfying narrative.

Perhaps the climax might have redeemed the book, if there had been a climax to speak of. After Cameron's incredibly disappointing story we get Uma's, which is an improvement on Cameron's but not enough of one. The question regarding the nature of truth and honesty on which Uma ends her story and Divakaruni ends the book might have served as a fit concluding point, if it had been properly foreshadowed and grown out of the themes already in place. Instead, it came out of left field and feels like something the author tacked on out of a spontaneous desire to finish up on an ambiguous note, rather than a logical culmination of the book as a whole.

Back in the framing story, there's a bit of a scare that never quite comes into shape, and a false alarm rescue which morphed into a real rescue when I wasn't looking, and the book ends with the rescuers minutes away from digging them out. The effect here is comparable to that of the better US backstories in the book—in principle, it should work fine, but in practice the delivery is so lackluster as to deprive it of all impact and meaning.

On the whole, I didn't find anything terribly objectionable in Divakaruni's racial or gender politics (of course, I'm not the best person to judge that sort of thing), though I was struck by the fact that everyone in the book appears to be straight and cisgendered. I don't just mean the main characters—there are only nine of them, after all—but everyone in their stories whose sexual orientation is specified as well.

Cameron's story also has tints of anti-abortion screed to it. It starts with him mourning the approximate anniversary of the death of his son, whom we eventually find out was actually an aborted fetus whose gender is never stated. Turns out when he was a teenager, Cameron got his girlfriend pregnant and refused to help her raise the baby because it would interfere with his college plans. She didn't want an abortion but got one anyway because she couldn't have a baby by herself, and Cameron later feels guilty more for the abortion than for leaving his pregnant girlfriend in the lurch. He goes on to fight in Vietnam and shoot up a couple guys, then spend the intervening thirty years atoning for having shot up a couple guys. He then runs into a mentor figure who explains that Cameron has by now cleared his conscience for killing people in the war, and he next has to clear his conscience for indirectly killing a fetus.

The most generous interpretation one can give this scenario is that it's Cameron's own values which equate abortion with murder, and driving his girlfriend into an abortion is only bad because Cameron himself views it as such. However, since Cameron's is the only moral judgment on abortion presented in the book, and it is never contradicted, the values expressed by Cameron and those expressed by the narrative itself are effectively one and the same.

There's a lot to like about One Amazing Thing, but the weakness of so many of the stories and the hollowness of the ending conspire to sabotage its early strengths. On balance, it's not a book I'd particularly recommend.
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Comments (go to latest)
Melanie at 09:21 on 2015-04-29
...Honestly, the premise reminds me of all those classes where the teacher decided to start things off with, "Why don't we go around the room and have everyone tell us a little bit about themselves".
Shim at 10:53 on 2015-04-29
I have to wonder about someone who suggests to a bunch of quarreling strangers that they should all share something so important and personal they've never told it to anyone else.

As far as verisimilitude goes though, a bunch of vague, rambling anecdotes that don't really address the premise and are emotionally unsatisfying seems like the most likely outcome.
Robinson L at 00:30 on 2015-04-30
Thanks for the comments.

@Melanie: I suppose that's a fair comparison, although "everyone tell us a little bit about themselves" is so open-ended that a lot of people may be at a loss for what to say; whereas "everyone tell us about one really incredible thing you've experienced in your life so far" feels potentially like something a bit more concrete. And by definition, it should be about something which would pack a substantial emotional punch.

@Shim: I dunno, I mean the idea as Uma states it is to talk about something positive they've experienced, and this is supposed to break the ice and get everybody to empathize a bit more with each other. I guess I'm not sure whether that seems like a good idea or not.

Oh, I should also probably mention in Divakaruni's favor while all the members of the cast come from either India or the US, they are racially diverse in way which felt like a plausible portrayal of the kind of breakdown you'd get of nine people in an Indian consulate in the states. Uma, Malathi, and Mr. Mangalam are Indian, Lily and Jiang are Chinese, Cameron is black, Mrs. and Mr. Pritchett are white, and Tariq is Middle Eastern.
Melanie at 01:29 on 2015-05-08
Yeah, but if you think about it, it's even worse in a way. It's still open-ended, but with an added "and make sure it's impressive". I don't think I'd be able to come up with anything like that although saying that makes me feel so, so boring.

I suppose I'm overthinking it. It's not like they're real people with real feelings about having to perform for some random strangers.

...I would still bet that someone, somewhere, thinks that would be a fantastic ice-breaker activity, though.
Michal at 07:47 on 2015-05-09
...I would still bet that someone, somewhere, thinks that would be a fantastic ice-breaker activity, though.

I once went to a party where the host thought getting everyone to read passages of modernist poetry out loud was the best way to get the conversation flowing. So conceivably, yes.

(I never did go to his house again.)
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2015-05-25
Whoops, coming back to this very late, but ...

Melanie: Yeah, but if you think about it, it's even worse in a way. It's still open-ended, but with an added "and make sure it's impressive".

Okay, fair point. On the other hand, they're not in a classroom setting: they're in a high-stress, life-or-death situation. You may argue that this only goes to make it worse even than that, and you might be right. Then again, you might not. Conceivably, the dire situation they're in could make it impossible to think about pretty much anything that's happened to them previously, let alone that it be impressive. But conversely, people might want to focus on anything other than the direness of their circumstances, and they might find that the possibility of imminent death means they're no longer concerned about lesser worries which bother us in our everyday lives - like social anxiety - allowing them to think more clearly to come up with something which fits the criteria. And one thing I definitely agree with Divakaruni about is that everyone has at least one really impressive experience in their life they could hypothetically share.

I suppose I'm overthinking it. It's not like they're real people with real feelings about having to perform for some random strangers.

I wouldn't call "applying real psychology to the story's scenario" overthinking it - we do that often enough elsewhere on this site to criticize other works, so I see no reason this book should get off. But yeah, when I referred to the "awesome premise," I was thinking of it more in terms of how it could have worked as a narrative conceit, not so much suggesting it would be a good idea to try out such a game in an analogous real life situation.

I still say that "nine very different people each narrate an incredible experience they've had" with the framing story "trapped by an earthquake in the Indian Consulate" is a fantastic story premise, even if the exact way you get to it necessitates a bit more willing suspension of disbelief. Which, of course, only adds to my disappointment that the novel ultimately failed to measure up.
Melanie at 05:17 on 2015-05-29
Conceivably, the dire situation they're in could make it impossible to think about pretty much anything that's happened to them previously, let alone that it be impressive. But conversely, people might want to focus on anything other than the direness of their circumstances, and they might find that the possibility of imminent death means they're no longer concerned about lesser worries which bother us in our everyday lives - like social anxiety - allowing them to think more clearly to come up with something which fits the criteria.


Both are possible, definitely. Actually, which one (if either) would happen would probably depend on the person.

"Let's all tell stories to take our minds off the situation and pass the time" is fine, really (and feels more like a thing that might actually happen); it's just the specifics that rub me the wrong way.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2015-06-01
Melanie: "Let's all tell stories to take our minds off the situation and pass the time" is fine, really (and feels more like a thing that might actually happen); it's just the specifics that rub me the wrong way.

Fair enough. I still find it potentially compelling storytelling device, even if its not such a good idea in real life.
Arthur B at 10:18 on 2015-06-05
It seems to me as though the author's essentially come up with a set of short stories, and then invented a framing device to make an excuse for tying these stories together in a novel. Do the later stories feel like responses to the earlier stories in part, or are they entirely self-contained and unrelated to each other? Would the framing story pan out manifestly differently if, say, the characters had all decided to tell dirty jokes or read stories from the newspaper to each other?

I particularly suspect this because you mention you can't really put your finger on what the "one amazing thing" in half the stories are supposed to be. I think that if Divakaruni had come up with the framing story concept first, then the natural tendency would have been to construct the stories so as to highlight and underscore the Amazing Thing they are each meant to be about; it sounds much more to me like she wrote the stories first, then did the framing device and tried to come up with a snappy way to highlight something all the stories have in common, but only partly succeeded.
Robinson L at 00:36 on 2015-06-06
Well, it's been a while now since I read the book, so my memory is kind of fuzzy. On the one hand, I do remember them feeling self-contained, even for the people who had a relative also participating in the game. I guess some of the later stories might have sort-of felt like responses to the earlier ones. They definitely weave into the framing device, with people's assumptions and attitudes about each other changing as a result of what's been shared - in that sense, yes, it would be a profoundly different framing story if they'd all been telling dirty jokes or reading newspaper articles. Also, the final story, Uma's, gives the backstory for the "one amazing thing," idea, right down to the exact wording.

On balance, I think the author wrote the stories to fit the theme, but I suppose it's just possible she wrote the first eight as unrelated projects, then dreamed up the last and the framing story to tie them all together. If so, I have to applaud her for doing a masterful job of fitting them up as well as they do.

Even though they don't live up to the "one amazing thing" theme, though, I think most of the stories are just mediocre on their face.
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