Review: Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing

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I finished this book just as the tsunami was approaching Japan.  I didn't know that at the time, of course-  I realized it the next morning as I looked at the first devastating news images and remembered the rather strong reaction I'd had to the end of the book (which was me saying out loud, "No!  No!  You can't end there?!   Keep going!").  Although One Amazing Thing is not about tsunamis, it is about earthquakes and the everyday humanity that remains in the face of catastrophic natural disaster.  In that sense it is a good companion to have while knowing that I, across the world, can do little to alleviate the suffering of those on an island across the Pacific.

Chitra Divakaruni has written two of my favorite books, the Mistress of Spices (made into a movie with Aishwarya Rai) and The Palace of Illusions (so good it's worth a re-reading... definitely on the to-do list).  Although One Amazing Thing does not operate at quite the level of those two books, it's a good, solid, gripping, and quick story.  A bunch of strangers are trapped in an unnamed visa office (which I imagine in San Francisco) when an earthquake reduces the building around them to rubble.  Trapped in the basement and unable to escape, they decide to tell each other stories about their lives while waiting to be rescued.  Each person tells "one amazing thing" about their life, something they haven't ever spoken about before.  The stories are as disparate as the tellers, covering love, loss, deprivation, desire, the meaning of happiness, and the search for peace.  Each story also answers the question, "And why are you going to India?" a question I've never found to have a boring answer.

I love the fact that the novel's protagonist is a female graduate student (props to all those women who are or have been graduate students and have been ready to leap in and save the psychological day).  I also appreciate the fact that despite the difficulty or simplicity of the life story being told, each is precious and beautiful in its own way.  It is a small comfort in the face of a large tragedy, of course.  But it's always useful to remember that each life, despite its course and ending, has its own meaning and value.  Each person is, in their own way, "one amazing thing."