The Weight of Heaven
By Thrity Umrigar
Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
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.
The Short of It:
An emotional story about love and loss and so much more. The Weight of Heaven demands your attention, shakes you up, then leaves you heavy with the weight of it.
The Rest of It:
This is a wonderful, meaty book. As you can imagine, the death of a child is a delicate subject. There’s something incredibly tragic about losing a child. Even when the child is gone, his memory lives on in everyday things… a stray toy found under the couch, the shoe that lost its mate some time ago, etc. As Ellie and Frank cope with their devastating loss, it’s obvious to Ellie that Frank is having a particularly hard time of it. When an opportunity comes up for Frank to transfer to Girbaug, India, he doesn’t think much of it. The thought of leaving seems almost more painful but Ellie encourages him to accept the offer. Perhaps change is what they need.
Frank’s company puts them up in corporate housing which includes the use of a servant couple, named Edna and Prakash. Edna and Prakash live in a smaller house on the same property, with their son Ramesh, a very precocious nine-year-old. During their time in India, Frank befriends Ramesh and tutors him in math. Frank cherishes his moments with Ramesh, but Ellie worries that Frank is trying to replace the son he lost.
Unfortunately, Ramesh’s father, Prakash also thinks the same thing. Prakash resents Frank’s attention towards his son. The extravagant gifts, the promises of a better education, basically, his help in general. Prakash, although a hard worker, resents having to work for a white man. This is obvious. However, Edna, Prakash’s wife thinks the exact opposite. She gushes over Frank’s generous offers. She sees Prakash as a failure and treats him as such. Cursing him and openly wishing that she’d married someone else. As much as these two fight, there is love but frustration gets the best of them.
In addition to Frank’s relationship with Ramesh, there is also Ellie’s desperate attempt to hold onto Frank. As the days pass, she feels that she is losing him. The only time that he seems happy is in the presence of Ramesh and this saddens Ellie. Instead of turning to her, he turns to Ramesh to ease his pain. However, Ellie loves Frank with all her heart and wants to see him happy, so she gives into his requests to be with Ramesh and often joins them in an attempt to see what Frank sees in this child. They decide to take Ramesh to Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now called for a weekend trip:
Bombay. Such a deceptive word, so soft-sounding, like sponge cake in the mouth. Even the new name for the city, Mumbai, carries that round softness, so that a visitor is unprepared for the reality of this giant, bewildering city, which is an assault, a punch in the face.
During this visit, even Ramesh is affected by the level of poverty. As they arrive at their 4-star hotel, Ramesh is overwhelmed by its opulence. Stunned. Speechless. Ellie regrets for a moment that they didn’t consider his reaction to such an extravagant hotel. However, this is how it is throughout the story, Frank wants to give Ramesh what he cannot afford on his own, but in doing so, inadvertently asserts his money and power over the poorer people around him.
Even at work, Frank is constantly at battle with the laborers. Trying to do what’s right, but not fully understanding the impact of his company’s actions. The constant class struggle, his overwhelming love of Ramesh, and the fragile love that he has for Ellie and hers for him. This story triggers a whirlwind of feelings, smells and sounds. At first I was devastated by their loss. Umrigar’s writing is so rich and beautiful that I shed a tear once or twice while reading about Benny and how he died and the pain that Ellie and Frank felt afterward.
Other times I was very angry. I was angry that Frank could not see what he was doing to Prakash. Turning a man’s son away from his father is a wretched thing to do, regardless of how abrasive Prakash was at times. I was also angry at how oblivious he was to the working conditions of his laborers. This also filtered down to Ellie a bit, although my reaction to her was not nearly as severe. Ellie loves India and its people, but she too, chooses to bully them at times when she sees the need to do so. One moment that comes to mind is when she is trying to convince Prakash to allow Ramesh to take a trip with them. She threatens him, and he is forced to agree although it tears him apart to do so.
As you can see, this novel evokes all sorts of emotion. I cried, I laughed I got angry. Through it all, I didn’t want it to end. I lingered on each page to bask in its beauty. Although these characters are far from perfect, they are easy to relate to. Every time I picked the book up I was completely absorbed by the story.
The Weight of Heaven is the perfect book club book. There’s just so much to discuss. This is my first experience with Umrigar’s work. Now I must go read her other books as this one was just wonderful. If you like a book to sweep you up and take you to another place, a book that really forces you to think about the world around you, then you will love this book.
To visit Thrity Umrigar’s website, click here.
Book Club Girl had to reschedule her Blog Talk Show with Ms. Umrigar but check the website regularly for updates.
To view Ms. Umrigar’s other TLC tour stops, click here.
Source: A big ‘thank you’ to TLC Book Tours for asking me to be a part of this tour and for providing me with a review copy of the book.