If you read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett then you’ll be familiar with the setting in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s One Amazing Thing. In an unnamed city (my guess is San Francisco), seven people have waited hours to obtain their Indian visas. A severe earthquake blocks all exits and they are trapped with no escape. At first there is the power struggle between two men as to who will be in charge. Cameron, who has been in similar situations in the Army, wins. It helps that Tariq carelessly runs through an open doorway and ends up being briefly buried under plaster fallen from the ceiling.
Uma has been watching everyone for hours, amazed at all the different people who are going to India. She knows they all must have a story. To calm everyone and to ignore the reality of the moment, Uma suggests they all share one story from their lives that they’ve never told anyone.
At first, everyone is reluctant to share their secret, but what did they have to lose? After the first person tells their tale, each of them waits with anticipation to tell their own. In between each unique story, we return to the cold, dark flooding room where everyone is huddled together on top of two tables in order to stay dry.
Each character represents such different areas of society. Uma has rebelled against her Indian parents as a teenager. Cameron, the army sargent, is saving the last puff from his inhaler in order to be able to tell his story. Tariq, the newly converted Muslim, is going to India to see the girl he thinks is his girlfriend. Lily and her grandma Jiang who is ethnic Chinese but raised in India and had to secretly escape to America are returning to their homeland. The counsulate employees Mangalam and Malathi had just stolen a forbidden kiss as the earthquake hit. Mr. & Mrs. Pritchett are surprised to learn secrets about each other that they never shared after 30+ years of marriage.
I felt like I was reading several short stories in one novel, each story was simply fascinating on its own and each character could have an entire book dedicated to them. After telling their story, each of them learns something about themselves. There is nothing like facing death to make us reflect upon our lives. Put in the same situation, what story would we share?
My only personal disappointment was the end. I like to be told what happens. But since I don’t read the endings first, how would I know? That said, I really enjoyed all of the different characters coming together to share One Amazing Thing.