Thrity Umrigar’s Honor (Algonquin 2022) was very nearly a rare five-star read, but the generic and forced ending quickly yanked that top rating. I cannot talk about this book, particularly what I disliked that brought the rating down, without spoilers. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.
Honor is extremely well-written and captivating; I couldn’t put it down, and that is a credit to Umrigar’s amazing talents. Smita left India when she was 14, and there is a bitterness her home country leaves in her mouth that teases the pages until she finally reveals the traumatic events that led to her family fleeing. The attack on her family and forced conversion to Hinduism could have been revealed just a touch earlier. Instead, Umrigar dances around it before vomiting the details in what comes across more as an info dump.
Smita has returned to India to help a friend following an accident – there was a bit of a misunderstanding about what Shannon meant by “help” and instead of helping her friend recover, Smita is using her vacation to cover Shannon’s news story about Meena, a Hindu woman whose brothers set her and her Muslim husband on fire to restore the family’s honor. An activist attorney had convinced Meena to pursue criminal charges and the verdict is expected any day.
As Meena lives in a very rural area of India where women shouldn’t travel alone and as Smita’s Hindi is rusty, one of Shannon’s friends, Mohan, joins her. The more time she spends with him, the more she finds herself attracted to him. Smita’s upbringing, experiences, and romance with Mohan become a distorted mirror of Meena’s life.
Meena’s story is the heart of this novel, with Smita but a vehicle to share it. The two mangoes on the cover represent Meena’s womanhood (there’s a scene wherein she refers to her breasts as mangoes and stresses that despite working, she is still a woman) and a sweet and forbidden romance (her love story begins with Abdul bringing her two mangoes).
Following a corrupt trial and a not guilty verdict, Meena is murdered. She knew her brother would finish the job, and both the attorney and Smita didn’t recognize her pleas for help. Meena manages to hide Abru before they come, and with her dying breath, Meena makes Smita promise to take her daughter with her to America.
And this is where the novel became a generic and forced romance. Smita and Mohan agree to adopt Abru and they fall in love. Smita struggles with returning to the States but ultimately decides to stay in India, at least temporarily. It’s not a happily ever after but it is a happy for right now ending. And I hated it; Meena’s life, romance, and child that she named “Abru,” which means ‘honor,’ deserved so much more.
Should you read this book? Absolutely. Because even with an ending I loathed, it is one of my top reads of the year.