Despite the fact that I didn’t much care for Thrity Umrigar’s later novel, The Weight of Heaven, and put her memoir, First Darling of the Morning, aside after just a couple of chapters, I’d heard enough good things about The Space Between Us that I decided to give Umrigar one more chance.
About the Book:
Bhima has worked for the Dubash family for more years than she can count. She’s seen Sera, now middle-aged, through the early years of a tumultuous marriage, the birth of her daughter Dinaz, the death of her husband Feroz, and everything in between. Even now that Dinaz and her husband are grown and living with Sera, Bhima continues to come each day to do the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning. She and her orphaned granddaughter, Maya, are as close to the Dubash clan as people from very different worlds can be in Bombay society. In fact, Sera often draws criticism for how well she treats her servant.
Bhima’s life outside the Dubash household is hard. She and Maya live in a rickety hut in one of Bombay’s sprawling slums. Her family was torn apart years ago, and now Maya is all she has. Sera was kind enough to help Maya get into and finance college, and Bhima had dreams of a life for Maya that didn’t involve cleaning up after someone else’s family. But Maya has gotten herself pregnant, father unknown, and the shame of it has forced her to drop out of classes.
That’s how the stage is set at the start of The Space Between Us. What follows is a short span concerning future events, interspersed between great swaths of reverie and remembrance as Sera and Bhima alternately dip into their pasts to reveal their own family stories and the crucial moments that knit their own relationship ever closer together.
Of the three of Thrity Umrigar’s books I’ve now tried, I liked The Space Between Us most. It held my attention all the way through, was nicely written, and had characters I cared about, more or less. Still, I didn’t love it. I can’t quite put my finger on why.
Somehow, the book felt predictable. I didn’t see the twist coming, and I didn’t know any of the details before I read them, but that didn’t matter. The outline, the overall shape of the story fell into place the way I’d subconsciously expected. Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means. One of the lovely things about fiction is how it can reveal what is to us. Some novels can show the truth of the world in a way that delights, or enlightens, or catches at your heart. For me, The Space Between Us did none of those, though. It felt inevitable, decided from the start, a toy train engine wound up and set on its track. I finished the book no more moved or enlightened than I had been when I’d started.
It’s certainly written well enough. The language flows, carrying the story along on its back. The transitions between present and past were fluid and effortless, and rarely did I lose track of when an event was occurring. The relationship between Bhima and the Dubash family felt real, in all aspects. The characters acted as one might expect them to. And Bombay society did, too.
I wonder if part of the problem for me was that the story bordered on overkill. Bhima and Sera have both had extremely hard lives, though perhaps Bhima more so. It’s a stream of one awful thing after another. And while I absolutely do not deny that such lives exist and that I am extremely lucky not to have lived one so far, when the only things that happen to characters in a novel are negative, you start to expect that whatever comes next, it will probably follow the established pattern. Sera and Bhima shared each other’s lives for decades, and yet the events in The Space Between Us that appear to draw them together are all tragic. Maybe if they’d bonded over and recalled the bright spots, too, I might have felt differently.
Also: without giving anything away, I’ll say that the ending didn’t do it for me. It felt too abrupt (and yet also somehow predictable). I needed more.
In short? I didn’t hate the book, but I feel no attachment to it, either.
The Verdict: Mediocre
I think perhaps Thrity Umrigar is another Ann Patchett for me — an author most readers seem to appreciate but about whose fiction there is something that turns me off. As the vague issues I had with the book are largely personal, I wouldn’t caution others not to read it. But I think I, for one, am done with Thrity Umrigar’s novels.
What books that the world seems to love do you actually not so much like?