Cleveland novelist Thrity Umrigar was at a book festival about three years ago when a woman she didn’t know began telling her a tragic life story. She talked about her son, who had suffered a tragic sports injury at a young age, how he was crippled emotionally and physically and ultimately committed suicide at age 30. She told her how, after his death, the woman and her husband moved to Taiwan, where they fell in love with the sweetness of the people there.
“I was struck by her story,” Umrigar says. “She was so amazingly well-grounded. I don’t know how someone goes through such immense tragedy and comes out of it as whole as she appeared to be.”
The woman’s story lingered in Umrigar’s mind. Eventually she thought,Wouldn’t it be lovely if, while in Taiwan, they had found a new child to love?Or maybe not.Perhaps it would have been a wedge that drove the couple apart.
Those were the seeds ofThe Weight of Heaven, Umrigar’s fourth novel, which will be released this month by Harper-Collins. The book tells the story of Frank and Ellie Benton, a couple who lost their young son, moved to India and fell in love with the young boy of their servants.
“The main thing I was trying to say in this book was how people have such varied reactions to grief,” Umrigar says. “Even when it’s the same external event, and even to a couple as close as these two were, it can bring out a completely different response.”
Umrigar, now an associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, ended up in Ohio at the age of 21 thanks to American folk singer Joan Baez and “Banks of the Ohio.” At the time, Umrigar was living in Bombay and looking for a U.S. college. When the song came on, her eyes fell on The Ohio State University, where she ultimately earned her graduate degree in journalism.
After spending 15 years at the Akron Beacon Journal, she has moved on to academia and her novels.
“It feels like it’s opened up a new, broad space for me to now be able to tell stories in my own words, to communicate my own thoughts and words,” she says.
While Umrigar has been in the states for 26 years —nearly all of them in Ohio —The Weight of Heaven is set mostly in India.
In the book, Frank is an executive with a U.S.-based corporation that has built a factory in the village of Girbaug. The setting, in addition to giving Frank and Ellie a stand-in for their lost son, also offers Umrigar a chance to make a statement on globalization.
“There is this gross inequity between First and Third World countries,” she says, “and [this book is about] what happens when those two clash with each other.”