An Unlikely Psychologist-Patient Friendship Unfolds In 'The Story Hour'

Originally published on August 16, 2014 8:28 am

The Story Hour explores an unlikely — and medically unethical — friendship between a psychologist and a patient. "It's a bit of a mystical connection," novelist Thrity Umrigar tells NPR's Scott Simon.

Lakshmi is stuck in a loveless marriage. She works for her husband, whom she loathes, in a small restaurant. Dr. Maggie Bose takes Lakshmi on as a patient, but soon decides her patient doesn't need a shrink — she needs an escape.

Umrigar is the author of five previous novels, including Bombay Time and The Space Between Us.


Interview Highlights

On the different worlds the two characters come from

Lakshmi is basically a recent immigrant to the U.S. She's the daughter of peasants, grew up in rural India. She is only here because she is basically trapped in a loveless arranged marriage. And Maggie is a character that most of us would recognize. She's a well-educated, African-American woman who is in a very loving marriage with an Indian man who is a professor of math.

On what makes the characters reach across the patient-therapist divide

There are obvious parallels that they both recognize — or at least Maggie recognizes right away. The very, frankly, shallow and superficial connection ... is that they are both married to Indian men, even though [their husbands] are quite different from each other. The real connecting tissue, between the two of them, I would say, is the fact that they both lost their mothers at relatively young ages. And there is something in the kind of almost existential loneliness that Lakshmi experiences in a very isolated life in America that tugs at Maggie, that speaks to Maggie.

On how no one story can encompass a person

What happened to me in the course of writing this book is that I came to a new understanding of what the stock therapy model actually means. And it made me realize that it's really a tribute to the act of storytelling — that it is in telling different stories about ourselves one central narrative emerges, and once that happens, there is potential then to play with that narrative and change it, and that is how personal transformation can perhaps begin to occur, which, of course, is the ultimate goal of therapy. And I do believe there is something extremely valuable and cathartic about telling each other our life stories.

On Maggie's fascination with Peter, a man who the reader can see is probably not good for her

Think of what the history of the world would be if we all shied away from bad news and people who were bad for us. ... What I love about Maggie is that given what she does for a living — this is just her weak point. She begins to get some glimpses later on as to why she's so drawn to this guy who clearly is bad news, and how much she is risking for the sake of somebody who, even she at some level realizes is simply not worth it.

On Maggie's statement that we are "earthbound creatures"

I think what brings Maggie to say that is this growing horror at how wrong she has been. Not only in her judgment of Peter, but in her own judgment of her own marriage and her own life. ... What she realizes as the paragraph goes on to say: What really matters is the person who makes you that pot of chicken noodle soup on a damp Saturday evening — ultimately, that's where life is lived. ...

In my very first novel, Bombay Time, there's a passage that basically says that everything that's out in the world exists within the head of a human being. And I think in some ways, this is just a different way of getting at that same concept: that everything that we know about human nature, about the world at large, exists within us also.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Story Hour" is a new a novel about what begins as an unlikely and, possibly, unethical friendship between psychologist and patient. Lakshmi is stuck in a loveless marriage, marooned in this small restaurant in which she works for her husband and loathes him. She takes pills to try to take her own life but lives in spite of it. Dr. Maggie Bos is the psychologist who begins to feel that her patient doesn't need a shrink so much as a means of escape, and she tries to help her find one. "The Story Hour" is the latest novel from Thrity Umrigar, the author of five previous novels including "Bombay Time" and the best-selling "The Space Between Us." She's a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University and joins us from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks much for being with us.

THRITY UMRIGAR: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How different are these worlds from which Maggie and Lakshmi Come?

UMRIGAR: Extremely different - Lakshmi is, basically, a recent immigrant to the U.S. She is the daughter of peasants - grew up in rural India. She's only here because she is, basically, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage. And Maggie is a character that most of us would recognize. She is a well-educated, African-American woman who is in a very loving marriage with an Indian man who is a professor of math - and just a different world, altogether, I would say.

SIMON: What do these women sense about each other that makes them reach across that divide between therapist and patient?

UMRIGAR: There are obvious parallels that they both recognize, or at least, Maggie recognizes this right away - the, very frankly, shallow and superficial connection, which is that they are both married to Indian men, even though they're quite different from each other. The real connecting tissue between the two of them, I would say, is the fact that they both lost their mothers at relatively young ages. And there is something in the kind of almost existential loneliness that Lakshmi experiences in a very isolated life in America that tugs at Maggie - that speaks to Maggie.

SIMON: Maggie begins to understand Lakshmi or, at least, thinks she does by hearing story after story about her life.

UMRIGAR: Right.

SIMON: But in some way, your book reminds us that no one story can really tell people who we are.

UMRIGAR: What happened to me in the course of writing this book is that I came to a new understanding of what this talk therapy model actually means. And it made me realize that it's really a tribute to the act of storytelling. That it is, in telling different stories about ourselves, that one central narrative emerges. And once that happens, there is potential then to play with that narrative and change it. And that is how personal transformation can perhaps begin to occur which, of course, is the ultimate goal of therapy. And I do believe that there is something extremely valuable and cathartic about telling each other our life stories.

SIMON: Lakshmi doesn't love her husband, but Maggie loves hers.

UMRIGAR: Yes.

SIMON: But she develops a fascination for a guy who - and I don't think I'm going to depress sales if I put it this way - may remind people of the Clint Eastwood character in "Bridges of Madison County." You find yourself, in the course of reading this, going, oh, Maggie. He is bad news. But then we wouldn't be human if we didn't occasionally blunder into bad news, I guess.

UMRIGAR: Well, I mean, think of what the history of the world would be if we all shied away from bad news and people who were bad for us, you know? And what I love about Maggie is that, given what she does for a living, this is just her weak point. And she begins to get some glimpses later on as to why she is so drawn to this guy who clearly is bad news and how much she is risking for the sake of somebody that even she, at some level, realizes is simply not worth it.

SIMON: I want to get some idea of the quality of your writing by getting you to read a section of your book if you could.

UMRIGAR: Sure.

SIMON: There's just a lovely section here, where you talk about when Maggie begins to come to the appreciation of family life.

UMRIGAR: (Reading) we are earthbound creatures, Maggie had thought, no matter how tempting this guy, no matter how beautiful the stars, no matter how deep the dream of flight, we are creatures of the Earth, born with legs not wings. Legs that root us to the earth and hands that allow us to build our homes - hands that bind us to our loved ones within those homes. The glamour, the adrenaline rush, the true adventure is here within those homes.

SIMON: That's such a lovely passage. And what brings you or Maggie to say that?

UMRIGAR: I think what brings Maggie to say that is this growing horror at what she has done and how wrong she has been not only in her judgment of Peter but in her judgment of her own marriage and her own life.

SIMON: Peter is Mr. bad news.

UMRIGAR: Yes. Peter is Mr. bad news. And what she realizes as the paragraph goes on to say - what really matters in a person who makes you that pot of chicken noodle soup on a damp Saturday evening. Ultimately, that's where life is lived. You know, in my very first novel, "Bombay Time," there's a passage that basically says that everything that's out in the world exists within the head of a human being. And I think, in some ways, this is just a different way of getting at that same concept - that everything that we know about human nature, about the world at large, exists within us, also.

SIMON: Thrity Umigar - her new novel, "The Story Hour." Thanks so much for being with us.

UMRIGAR: Scott, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.