Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

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11 thoughts on “Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

  1. Cecilia,

    Fantastic review. I am familiar with this author, but tend to sometimes put Indian American reads to the later pile because so many capitalize on the standard story line. This book, however, sounds different and intriguing. Therapy is such a taboo word among Indians (I suspect with other cultures too), but I am glad that Umrigar is offering a more sensible look at the benefits of talking out issues with a therapist. I will definitely read this book based on your review. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much, Rudri. I do hope you’ll like it. Definitely let me know what you think about it. I didn’t mention in my post that the chapters narrated by Lakshmi are done so in broken English, and I’ll be curious to hear your take on it, if you feel her voice is genuine. I’ve just assumed that it is, because the author is Indian/Indian-American.

      I know what you mean about the standard story line; I think it’s the same reason I have stayed away from many Asian-American immigrant stories.

  2. This is the kind of thing I like to read about, as well. You have asked so many interesting questions about friendship and judging others. The idea that most of us are good people faced with tough decisions, and we all react differently, is also intriguing. And the possibilities are endless in this area. It’s nice to know this author wrote about it well, because I own The Space Between Us by the same author and hope to read it soon!

    • Right! We like complex stories 🙂 I have seen The Space Between Us quite often at book sales. Now that I have read this author, I will likely pick up her other books the next time I see them. I hope you’ll enjoy the book when you get to it!

  3. Sounds like a great read – adding to my reading list! Every one of us has a story that should not be judged on its cover because there is so much more inside. I like being a positive force and building my girlfriends up not breaking them down; love, compassion, understanding, kindness, etc. is an essential part to communicating, interacting, connecting, and building a friendship 🙂 Happy Day!

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