Weight of Heaven (Umrigar)

The Weight of Heaven
Thrity Umrigar, 2009
HarperCollins
386 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061472558


Summary
The Weight of Heaven is an emotionally charged story about unexpected death, unhealed wounds, and the price one father will pay to protect himself from pain and loss. Additionally, it offers unique perspectives, both Indian and American, on the fragmented nature of globalized India.

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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—N/A
Where—Mumbai, India
Education—B.A., Bombay, University; M.A., Ohio State
   University; Ph.D., Kent State University
Awards—Neiman Fellowship to Harvard
Currently—lives in Cleveland, Ohio, USA


A journalist for seventeen years, Thrity Umrigar has written for the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and other national newspapers, and contributes regularly to the Boston Globe's book pages. She teaches creative writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University.

The author of The Space Between Us; Bombay Time, the memoir First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, and The Weight of Heaven, she was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. (From the publisher.)

Learn more about Umrigar from an interview on author's website.



Book Reviews
Powerful.... Twisty, brimming with dark humor and keen moral insight, The Weight of Heaven packs a wallop on both a literary and emotional level.... Umrigar...is a descriptive master.
Christian Science Monitor


Umrigar (The Space Between Us) continues her exploration of cultural divides in this beautifully written and incisive novel about an American couple's experience in India. Frank and Ellie Benton, grappling with the death of their seven-year-old son, move from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Girbaug, India, where Frank takes a job running a factory. While he tackles the barriers faced by an educated, wealthy American in charge of a Third World work force, Ellie, a psychologist, makes inroads with the impoverished locals at a health clinic. Frank has a difficult time adjusting at work, and at home he takes an interest in their housekeepers' son, Ramesh, and begins tutoring him. While Frank buries his grief by helping Ramesh, he ends up in competition with the boy's bitter father, Prakash, and further damaging his already troubled marriage. Umrigar digs into the effects of grief on a relationship and the many facets of culture clash-especially American capitalism's impact on a poor country-but it is the tale of how Frank's interest in Ramesh veers into obsession and comes to a devastating end that provides the gripping through line. Umrigar establishes herself as a singularly gifted storyteller.
Publishers Weekly


Frank and Ellie are two attractive people who have basically led charmed lives. Frank's absent father notwithstanding, they each grew up in fairly secure surroundings and attended college and professional school, meeting and marrying and living in bliss. Suddenly, the world spins out of control when their seven-year-old son dies from meningitis. Soon afterward, they have an opportunity to make a work-related move to a seaside town in India, providing the panacea that will help them heal from their loss. As educated, liberal, progressive Americans, they cannot anticipate how they will react as they become part of the class struggle within Indian society; nor can they know how attached they will become to the son of their servants. Although it may be risky to latch on to bright young Ramesh, they convince themselves that they are helping the boy by providing him with things that his parents could never afford. Self-deception runs rampant, and Frank is eventually overcome by emotional turmoil, which leads him to make a fatal error in judgment. Umrigar (The Space Between Us) finely plumbs the depths of the human heart, from the heights of joy and passion to the very deepest despair. Recommended for all fiction collections. —Susanne Wells
Library Journal


(Starred review.) Umrigar (First Darling of the Morning, 2008) renders melancholy novels that resonate with rich prose and vibrant depictions of India, where she spent the first 21 years of her life before moving to the States. The Weight of Heaven is a bold, beautifully rendered tale of cultures that clash and coalesce. —Allison Block
Booklist


Sorrow turns to obsession when Ellie and Frank Benton move from Ann Arbor, Mich., to India shortly after the death of their seven-year-old son.... Umrigar's portrait of Frank's descent into obsessive madness is well paced, as are her descriptions of the couple's loneliness together, but the novel stumbles with two long flashbacks—one describing Frank and Ellie's courtship and the other Benny's death—that add little. By the end, Frank's preoccupation turns to wickedness and violence. Not as unified as Umrigar's previous novels...but an unflinching portrait of parental bereavements.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. What does the title The Weight of Heaven mean?

2. Who are Ellie and Frank Benton? What kind of people are they? What do they believe in? What were they like before and after their son Benny's death?

3. When Ellie learns of the job in Girbaug, India, she sees it as "a chance to save her marriage. To start clean in new place." Is this a false hope? Is it possible to start again after suffering a terrible tragedy?

4. What are Ellie and Frank's perceptions of India before they moved? How do their ideas compare with the real India they discover?

5. How does their adopted culture change the American couple? Though they live in the same house, interact with many of the same people, do they experience the same India? How do their experiences affect their behavior?

6. Consider Edna and Prakash, the housekeeper and cook. How do they compare to Ellie and Frank? If you were in Edna and Prakash's place, how would you feel about Frank's interest in Ramesh?

7. How did Frank's money and attention affect Ramesh? Is Frank wrong to want to give the boy a better life?

8. What kind of a father is Frank? What about Prakash? How do their childhood experiences influence the men—and the fathers—they are?

9. In The Weight of Heaven, Thrity Umrigar explores interwoven themes of marriage, love, family, home, jealousy, fear, guilt, responsibility, class, power. How do these themes drive the story?

10. The conflict between rich and poor is central to the novel. How is the struggle between Frank and Prakash reflective of the battle between the factory workers and the executives who run HerbalSolutions? Between America and India?

11. The ideas of Eden and paradise are interwoven throughout The Weight of Heaven. How are they manifested in the stories of Ellie and Frank and Edna and Prakash? How do ignorance and knowledge guide their happiness and despair?

12. What is the role of Ellie and Frank's friends, Shashi and Nandita?

13. What are your impressions of Gulab Singh? Why do you think he was so willing to side with Frank against his own people?

14. Think about Ellie and Frank's experiences as foreigners adapting to a strange new land. Can you imagine the reverse—what it might be like for Edna, Prakash, and Ramesh to make a new life in America?

15. When a young Indian journalist interviews Frank, she asks, "Do you think it is ethical for a foreign company to own natural resources in another country?" How would you answer this? What if another nation owned some of America's natural resources?

16. The journalist also raises the notion of moral responsibility. Does the West have a moral obligation to developing nations? How does moral responsibility differ from legal responsibility?

17. Frank questions and redefines his faith, first when he learns that Benny is seriously ill, and later when he has pneumonia in India. How do these philosophical crises influence his actions?

18. Frank offered the promise of a different life for Ramesh. What do you think will ultimately happen to the boy? What do you think the future holds for Frank?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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