One Amazing Thing was assigned to all incoming freshman at my university as our summer reading book. When we received the novel at orientation, we were given a brief pitch. The speaker described that the book involved a group of characters trapped in a room amidst an earthquake, and that each character in the room comes from almost every culture on earth. As the emotional tensions of the disaster escalate, the characters begin opening up to one another through telling a story shaped by their past, culture, and worldview.
A number of freshman faces winced at the idea, as such a concept sounded forced. Some students started reading the book before the first day of orientation was up. One freshman told me: "I find it hard to believe that this diverse a group of people would happen be in the same place at the same time." When I pitched the book to others who were curious about my college endeavors, they couldn’t help but feel skeptical, again thinking that the a notion of such a mixed group of characters seemed staged and far-out.
I was surprised that what I found hard to believe wasn’t how the characters came together, but how the major plot line was executed. One Amazing Thing takes place in an Indian visa office in an unnamed American city. Each of the characters are either working in the office, or are desperately trying to get to India for one reason or another. As the book explained to me how such a varied group of characters came to be, I no longer focused on the odds of such an event occurring, but on what the story was trying to tell me.
The author does a beautiful job of portraying how the group interacts with each other. Some of the characters are atheist, some are Christian, one is Islamic, a handful are Hindu, and one is Buddhist. But behind everyone’s religion, worldview, and even skin color, is a past. Everyone’s past has defined who they are, and how they interpret the world around them and react to certain situations. As the earthquake rattles what is a normal day for the group, everyone is insistent as to how they shouldcollectively or individually handle their circumstances. The Vietnam veteran, trained in survival skills knows what’s best for everyone, even if they aren’t guaranteed survival. The Muslim believes Allah will save them, and grows jealous of the soldier, insisting that he is a holy man who will lead them to freedom. One man is simply trying to take a few drafts from a cigarette, despite the dangers of starting a fire amidst an already dire situation. Everyone’s perspective is given validity by the author, who gives a thoughtful depiction of how such a group of people would interact, and where conflict lies between ideologies.
Because there are so many characters with different views, the story shifts perspective often. This keeps things fresh by not spending too much time with a single character, who each view situations with narrow-minded ideas. The story also doesn’t repeat the same event twice with multiple characters. So often books chose to repeat the same event through different eyes numerous times in order to provide different perspectives. While this device can work, it is often tedious, especially for books that switch perspective throughout such as this one. Yet Divakaruni maintains momentum by allowing readers to view an event through the thoughts of one character, leaving the others’ perspectives a mystery. Such gaps allow the reader to ask questions.
When the story was originally pitched to me, I found the main plot relatively easy to grasp: Reaching an emotional breaking point, the characters begin to open up to each other by sharing their past. I thought that this concept would have transitioned easily, but the actual initiation of the characters’ sharing their stories is abrupt and feels all too whimsical. Given Divakaruni’s elegant writing style (making what seems like a far-out concept so down-to-earth), I expected a smooth transition. Instead, the characters’ decision to tell stories plays out more like suggesting that everyone hold hands and sing "kum ba ya" under the stress of death row. It just doesn’t feel natural amidst the dire situation of an earthquake, where help may or may not make it in time. There was a way to initiate this action, but this simply didn’t feel appropriate.
Aside from the rocky transition, each story presented is beautifully written, emotional, and just as diverse as the characters themselves. One is that of a 1950’s Sandlot-esc tale of a youth, quickly making an emotional turn with a more Stand By Me vibe. One is that of a love story amidst oppression by a communist regime. One is a tale of seeking asylum from religious prejudice. Every story involves a form of suffering, which allows the group to realize among themselves that no one has it perfect. Whether they are an A+ college student with wealthy parents, a lower-class shop owner, or belonging a minority group oppressed by a fearful government, everyone suffers in their own way. This allows them to break down their barriers by realizing that they are not the only ones who face hardship. Everyone’s story reveals how they found their way into the visa office they are in, which for many of the characters means that they are trying to get to India. As they wrestle with ideas such as fate and actions they take in life, doctrines of Hindu religion come into play which ever slowly form everyone’s reality. The fact that each character’s circumstances culminate to India and its culture is appropriate, as Chitra Divakaruni is Indian.
While One Amazing Thing is a beautiful story, it doesn’t quite stick its landing. It does what all great forms of literature do by forcing the reader to ask questions, yet it doesn’t provide quite enough closure in some areas. Also, the ending is rather abrupt. After such a mature story, the ending feels more like that of a whimsical young adult novel of youth fantasy, right down to the last few paragraphs.
One Amazing Thing managed to surprise me in many ways. It allowed me to grasp a seemingly unbelievable concept, and regard it more as a what-if situation, yet one which is more realistic than we may think. It gives us hope that, amidst times of divisiveness, people of different backgrounds can recognize their similarities of sin and suffering, and exercise sympathy. It also manages to tell wildly diverse, stylized tales in short chapters, showing off Chitra Divakaruni’s talent as a writer. Through the individual stories, readers can learn to appreciate the subtle nuances of their own stories. On the whole, One Amazing Thing is an inspiring novel which should shine a light for the world as a collective, and inspire individuals to appreciate their lives.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; September 2017