The Weight of Heaven

( 22 )

Overview

“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

From Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of The Space Between Us, comes The Weight of Heaven. In the rich tradition of the acclaimed works of Indian writers such as Rohinton Mistry, Akhil Sharma, Indra Sinha, and Jhumpa Lahiri, The Weight of Heaven is an ...

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The Weight of Heaven: A Novel

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Overview

“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

From Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of The Space Between Us, comes The Weight of Heaven. In the rich tradition of the acclaimed works of Indian writers such as Rohinton Mistry, Akhil Sharma, Indra Sinha, and Jhumpa Lahiri, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

MoreMagazine
"Umrigar beautifully illuminates how human relationships are complicated by cultural, geographical, and class divides."
Publishers Weekly

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. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

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 (First Darling of the Morning) 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

Kirkus Reviews
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. Frank's employer, HerbalSolutions, harvests and manufactures a diabetes remedy in the village of Girbaug, and Frank, at Ellie's urging, is to run the plant. They are escaping from the empty bedroom their son once occupied, from the empty weekends they fill with long aimless drives, from the thousand memories they have of their happy boy, killed quickly by meningococcal fever. In India, Ellie and Frank find a reprieve from their heartache, but escape is hardly a cure. After a year and a half, Ellie loves India, has found a best friend in former journalist Nandita and a sense of purpose in working to improve the lives of the villagers. For Frank, though, India offers no simple salve. As the symbol of corporate America using up its natural resources, he deals with labor disputes, bribery and even the death of a union activist who was trying to improve conditions at HerbalSolutions. The only bright spot for Frank is Ramesh, young son of the Bentons' maid and cook. As Frank becomes increasingly attached to the boy, his father Prakash becomes jealous, irritated by the rich Westerner who can lure his son with expensive gifts, free time and promises of an American education. It is obvious to Ellie that Ramesh is a replacement for their dead son, but what she can't fathom is Frank's vitriolic attitude toward Prakash, and increasingly, all India. 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 andEllie'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 (If Today Be Sweet, 2007, etc.), but an unflinching portrait of parental bereavement.
More Magazine
“Umrigar beautifully illuminates how human relationships are complicated by cultural, geographical, and class divides.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
Thrity Umrigar's The Weight of Heaven straddles the United States and India as Frank and Ellie, a grieving American couple, relocate in the hope of healing the trauma of their only child's death. Frank takes a position managing a factory in a small Indian town, and at first the move seems like the right one. Ellie feels at home in her adopted country, helping out in the village, teaching school and counseling women. But the company that owns the factory has leased the village's trees from the Indian government and has prohibited the villagers from accessing what had been a source of medicine, shelter, and income for generations. Frank becomes the face of the company pillaging the village's land, and violence follows him. Seeking solace, he turns to his servants' child, who he tries to shoehorn into the empty space left by his son's loss. Rather than a fresh start, India soon becomes just a different setting for Frank and Ellie to splinter apart. We follow their breakdown moment-by-moment, like a slow-motion death spiral. Umrigar does seem to pull up, finding a lighter note as Ellie befriends former investigative journalist Nandita. Their friendship provides welcome air for both Ellie and the reader, but by its last quarter, the novel has set its course for tragedy. The drama centered around the factory proves a distraction from the story of Ellie and Nandita who, after following a once-unquestionable path -- college, successful career, rewarding marriage -- are left with an emptiness in their lives that neither woman seems interested in filling. This delicate and far more compelling story is overrun by the tale of rage, obsession, and misery that dominates the rest of the novel. --Melissa Lion
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061472541
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/14/2009
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Thrity Umrigar is the author of five novels—The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time—and the memoir First Darling of the Morning. An award-winning journalist, she has been a contributor to the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Huffington Post among other publications. She is the winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard, the 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Seth Rosenberg Prize. A professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, she lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Read an Excerpt

The Weight of Heaven

Chapter One

They had finished dinner a half hour ago, and now they sat on the porch waiting for the rains to come. The nighttime air was heavy with moisture, but it held its burden in check, like a widow blinking back her tears. While they waited, the storm entertained them with its flash and dazzle—the drumbeat of the thunder, the silver slashes of lightning against the black skin of the sky. With each explosion of lightning they saw the scene before them—the tall shadows on their front lawn cast by the coconut trees, the still sand beyond the lawn, and even beyond that, the restless, furious sea, straining against the shore.

He had always loved thunderstorms, even as a young boy in Grand Rapids. While his older brother, Scott, cowered and flinched and pulled the bedcovers over his ears, Frank would stand before the window of their shared bedroom, feeling brave and powerful. Talking back to the storm. He would deliberately turn his back on Scott, embarrassed and bewildered to see his older brother, usually as placid as the waters of Lake Michigan in the summer, turn into this fearful, unrecognizable creature. If they were lucky, their mother would come into their room to rock and calm her oldest boy down, and then Frank was free to escape to the second-floor porch that was adjacent to the guest bedroom. Being on this porch was the next best thing to being outdoors. From here, he felt closer to the tumultuous Michigan sky and violently, perilously free. Thunderstorms made him feel lonely, but it was a powerful lonely, something that connected him to the solitude of the world around him. If he stood on his toesand leaned his upper body out on the porch railing just so, the rain would hit his upturned face, the tiny pinpricks painful but exhilarating. The wind roared and Frank roared back; his hands tingled with each burst of lightning, as if it was nothing but a projection of the jagged, electric energy that coursed through his pale, thin body.

Years later, it would become one of Frank's greatest disappointments that his son had not inherited his love of thunderstorms. When little Benny would crawl into bed with them, when he would whimper and bottle up his ears with his index fingers, Frank fought conflicting urges—the protective, fatherly part of him would pray for the thunderstorm to pass, would want to cradle his son's trembling body in the nest of his own, even as a small disappointment gathered like a lump in the back of his throat.

Unlike in Michigan, thunderstorms in western India did not pass quickly. They had been in Girbaug for seventeen months now and knew how it could rain nonstop for days during the monsoon season. Now, although it was only May, the forecast called for rain tonight. Frank felt grateful to be home to watch it. He sat impatiently, waiting for the heavy, laden sky to deliver its promise. The wind whipped around them, high enough that they didn't have to rock the swing they were sitting on. Behind them, the house was dark—Ellie had turned off the lights after they'd picked up their after-dinner coffees and padded out to the porch. Every few minutes the lightning lit up the whole panoramic scene before them, like a camera flash. Frank knew that when the rains came crashing down they would come swiftly, brutally, and his body ached with anticipation. So far it had all been foreplay—the whispers of the tall coconut trees as they leaned into each other; the cloying sweetness of the jasmine bushes; the painful groaning of the thunder. Now, he longed for the satisfying release that the rains would deliver.

He turned toward Ellie and waited for the next flash of lightning to illuminate her face. They had exchanged a few aimless words since moving to the porch, but for the most part they had sat in an easy silence for which Frank was grateful. It was a contrast to most of their interactions these days, which were laced with bitterness and unspoken accusations. He knew he was losing Ellie, that she was slipping out of his hands like the sand that lay just beyond the front yard, but he seemed unable to prevent the slow erosion. What she wanted from him—forgiveness—he could not grant her. What he wanted from her—his son back—she couldn't give.

The lightning flashed, and he saw her white, slender body for an instant before the darkness carried her away again. She was sitting erect and still, her back pressed against the wooden boards of the swing. But what made Frank's heart lurch was the look on her face. She sat with her eyes closed, a beatific expression on her face, looking for all the world like one of the Buddha statues they had seen on a recent trip to the Ajanta caves. She seemed to feel none of the agitation, the exciting turmoil, that was coursing through his body. Ellie seemed far away, as distant as the moon he could not see. Slipping away from his hands. Completely unaware of the memories tumbling through his mind—Ellie and he running through the streets of Ann Arbor at night during a thunderstorm, laughing wildly and singing at the top of their lungs before arriving at the house she was renting, stripping off their wet clothes at the door and falling naked onto the couch she had inherited from the previous grad student who lived there; him coming home from work one evening and finding Ellie lying on her stomach on the floor, trying to pull their four-year-old son from under their bed where he was hiding during a rainstorm.

A savage malice gripped Frank. As was common these days, something about Ellie's calm irritated him. Deliberately, he said, "Do you remember how he used to—"

"Yes. Of course I remember." She was wide awake now, having heard something in his voice that perhaps even he was not aware of. The satisfaction that Frank felt from having destroyed Ellie's calm was tempered by something approaching regret. Her serenity, which he used to value so much, was now a scab he had to pick away at.

The Weight of Heaven. Copyright © by Thrity Umrigar. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Umrigar quickly becoming a favorite author!!

    This is probably one of the best books I've read all year. I loved it from the start. Loved most of the characters especially Ellie & Prakesh although I thoroughly despised Frank. It was heartbreaking and at times heartwarming. I don't want to give too much away, but this book will stay with me for a while.

    I highly recommend it as well as her other book The Space Beween Us. I will also soon be reading If Today Be Sweet. Can't wait for more from this very talented author.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2011

    A little boring

    The Weight of Heaven was a good story, but the author goes off on too many "past" details that I found not relevant and so I did a lot of 'speed reading' and skipping to get through those areas. Not sure whether I would recommend it or not based on that aspect.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 26, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Masterpiece

    Frank and Ellie Benton have suffered the ultimate parents' nightmare. Their seven year old son, Ben, was struck with a fast-moving infection and died almost overnight. Understandably, they are crushed. After months of plodding haplessly through their daily routines, an opportunity appears. Frank's company, a pharmacutical, gets the raw ingredients for their new top-selling drug from trees native to India. The company needs someone to go and head up operations there.

    Desperate for a change, the Bentons agree to move to India, hoping that it will be a fresh start in a place with no memories of their son. Ellie thrives there, making new friends and falling in love with India and its people. Frank has a rougher time.

    Frank's job provides problems along with the opportunities. The Indian workers are different from those he has managed in the past, creating conflict. There are bribes that are paid to local governments, a different scenario than he has encountered. Wages are low and working conditions are harder than in American factories. The biggest conflict concerns not only his workers but the entire area. The company has bought the rights to the trees that their top-selling drug is created from. The local population has used those trees for centuries, and have established harvests and markets. They are now forbidden to do so; their livlihood sold to a foreign company by their government. This creates constant tension and as things deteriorate, protests and riots.

    A new relationship starts to help Frank. He takes an interest in the son of their cook and housekeeper. This child, Ramesh, is a bright child, engaging and outgoing. Frank and Ellie offer to pay his tuition to a local private school. Soon they are taking him on weekend trips, and he is a guest at dinners they give for their friends--dinners prepared and served by his parents, who are there as servants rather than guests. Frank becomes more and more involved with Ramesh. Both Ramesh's parents and Ellie start to feel uncomfortable with his focus; Elllie because she thinks he is trying to replace their son, and the parents because he is weaning their son's allegience away.

    Things come to a head as Frank attempts to find a way to take Ramesh back to America when he and Ellie finish their tour in India. The book sweeps along to a shocking climax that the reader will not soon forget.

    I can't recommend this book highly enough. The writing is lush and quiet, but provides a steady increase of suspense. The conflicts between industrial nations and those countries providing resources and labor are starkly outlined. How marriages survive tragedies and the way individuals rebuild lives is explored in a deft manner, providing insights without being heavy handed. This book is recommended for all readers. It is a stunning book that the reader will remember for quite some time.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2013

    Intriguing at the beginning

    Interesting cultural, moral and emotional issues explored. The ending seemed unreal and abrupt, liked the book all throughout the end and then got disappointed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2012

    Unexpected, Very Good.

    I couldn't put this down and didn't expect the ending. I can't wait to read more by this author.

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  • Posted February 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    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.

    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.

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  • Posted January 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    This is an entertaining tale of two kindhearted caring people whose outlook is different

    Following the death of their seven years old son from meningitis, psychologist Ellie Benton persuades her spouse Frank that he should accept a position to run a HerbalSolutions factory in Girbaug, India as it will be easier to move past their grief if they leave Ann Arbor. He agrees.

    In the small village, Ellie adapts rather easily working at a clinic while Frank remains filled with grief and drifts away from his wife. His only solace is tutoring his housekeeper's son Ramesh, which is resented by the lad's father Prakesh. Meanwhile Ellie and Frank are on different sides of the issue of the trees as she defends the locals' use and he claims his company owns them under a lease agreement with the government. Investigative reporter Nandita meets Ellie and they become friends, which further alienates the American woman from her mate. Tragedy seems imminent as hostilities in the village over the trees grow.

    This is an entertaining tale of two kindhearted caring people whose outlook is different; as one adjusts while the other turns into the Ugly American who can only buy friendship with a replacement local child. The story line is fast-paced for the most part although a flashback to the Benton courtship feels like unnecessary padding as it adds nothing since the audience knows the couple is educated and liberal until a year or so passes in India. Still readers will appreciate this fine tale as the Benton couple serve as a microcosm of capitalist interests with opposite directions in how each adapts to residing in Girbaug.

    Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2009

    Mixture of Great Drama with Metaphysics

    The book offers a lot. A wonderful insight into the working of India politically and socially, both small town and city. Dramatic story line about heart breaking loss and the struggle to recover some sense of joy in daily life. The broken couple Ellie and Frank take very different paths to heal life's cruelty. Frank's struggles in particular are gripping and awful, and lead him down an unbelievable path. Never has metaphysics been so gripping, or obsession so palpable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2009

    One of the best books I have read in years!

    Having recently toured India, I felt connected with places that were described in the book. However, it was not too bogged down with details from a foreign country.

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