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If Today Be Sweetby Thrity Umrigar
Synopses & Reviews
Tehmina Sethna's beloved husband has died this past year and she is visiting her son, Sorab, in his suburban Ohio home. Now Tehmina is being asked to choose between her old, familiar life in India and a new one in Ohio with her son, his American wife, and their child. She must decide whether to leave the comforting landscape of her native India for the strange rituals of life in a new country.
This is a journey Tehmina, a middle-aged Parsi woman, must travel alone.
The Parsis were let into India almost a millennium ago because of their promise to "sweeten" and enrich the lives of the people in their adopted country. This is an ancient promise that Tehmina takes seriously. And so, while faced with the larger choice of whether to stay in America or not, Tehmina is also confronted with another, more urgent choice: whether to live in America as a stranger or as a citizen. Citizenship implies connection, participation, and involvement. Soon destiny beckons in the form of two young, troubled children next door. It is the plight of these two boys that forces Tehmina to choose. She will either straddle two worlds forever and live in a no-man's land or jump into the fullness of her new life in America.
If Today Be Sweet is a novel that celebrates family and community. It is an honest but affectionate look at contemporary America — the sterility of its suburban life, the tinsel of its celebrity culture, but also the generosity of its people and their thirst for connection and communication. Eloquently written, evocative, and unforgettable, If Today Be Sweet is a poignant look at issues of immigration, identity, family life, and hope. It is a novel that shows how cultures can collide and become better for it.
"In Umrigar's tender fourth novel, Tehmina 'Tammy' Sethna is torn between two cultures that couldn't be more different: Bombay and Cleveland. The former is her homeland, but after her husband's recent death, she's been staying with her son and his family in America. Tehmina loves being near grandson Cookie, but she often feels like an intruder in her American daughter-in-law's home, and she's disconcerted by the changes in her son, Sorab, who is stressed from the corporate rat race. Though Tehmina's loneliness floods her with memories of her husband, the Parsi community back in India and her traditional ways, she finds no small amount of purpose (and celebrity) in Cleveland after suspecting her neighbor of child abuse and intervening on the children's behalf. Immigration laws, meanwhile, force her to decide whether she'll remain in Cleveland or return to Bombay. Umrigar (The Space Between Us) shows the unseemly side of American excess and prejudice while gently reminding readers of opportunities sometimes taken for granted. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In a wintry suburb of Cleveland, a recently widowed Parsi named Tehmina has come from her apartment in Bombay to visit — maybe to live with — her only son, Sorab, and his American wife, Susan. The couple have a 7-year-old child nicknamed Cookie, on whom Tehmina dotes. If this were India, it would be a given that Tehmina would live out her life with this small family, but this is America, and Susan... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) has been complaining about the gray hairs her mother-in-law has been leaving in the shower. It's unclear just how long Tehmina has been visiting, but the premise of the novel depends on whether she'll return to Bombay — where she has no family and very few friends — or decide to stay in this sterile and isolated American suburb. It's the middle of December, and she needs to decide by the New Year. It seems like a straightforward idea for a novel, an opportunity to explore cultural differences and so on, but things don't go right in this story. Thrity Umrigar, born and raised in Bombay, moved to Ohio to go to college. She was a journalist for many years and has a Ph.D. in English. She should be thoroughly versed in both Parsi and American culture, but these characters — major and minor ones — seem just a bit hesitant, even sketchy. At one point, out on the couple's front lawn, Tehmina remarks, 'I think I'll go inside for a few minutes.' Twelve lines later, her daughter-in-law suggests, 'Listen, why don't you go inside for a bit?' Repetitive, disconnected speech like this was employed by Stephen Crane in 'The Red Badge of Courage,' and certainly by Pinter in some of his plays, but it seems strange in a conventional, domestic novel of manners. Tehmina and Susan's afternoon outside is interrupted by a difficult neighbor, a single mom with two little boys, Josh and Jerome, whom she abuses. When the brothers come home to an empty house — Tehmina and Susan are still on the brink of going inside for a bit — Jerome looks at Susan and says, 'You're pretty.' (Later in the narrative, Cookie, just Jerome's age, will size up the wife of Sorab's boss and say to her, 'You're pretty.') When the boys' mother finally comes home, she says to Susan, 'Look, lady, I don't need anybody monitoring my comings and goings. I'm thankful and all that, but next time just let my kids wait.' Again, there's a tentative quality to this spoken dialogue. A woman who says 'Look, lady' is not quite the same kind of person who uses 'monitor' as a verb. Umrigar is exceedingly considerate of her characters, which keeps them just a bit out of focus for the reader. The plot, too, is tentative, delicate. Three questions are asked: Will Tehmina return to India? Will Sorab lose his job to a woman named Grace who, in a parody of ad-agency jargon, uses words such as 'fabtastic,' 'wondersonic' and 'fantabulous'? What's going to happen to the abused children next door? While it's fairly clear how these questions will be answered, the characters seem shy in the actions they take (until the high point near the end of the book). Sorab goes to work but is only seen in conversation with his nutty superior. Susan and her mother-in-law go Christmas shopping. Tehmina goes grocery shopping with a neighbor who says, 'We'd take care of all the young uns, wouldn't we? Me and my siblings, we were poor as New Jersey dirt, but I tell you — we had each other and we were happy.' Sorab and Susan make love while Tehmina is in the next room. Tehmina gets a phone call from Bombay in the middle of the night that wakes up everyone in the American household. More shopping for more Christmas presents. And all is not well in the house next door. Tehmina should be what we used to call the normative voice here, but she seems curiously paralyzed and busy at once, called upon to feel, for instance, 'instinctive resolution,' 'shocked hurt,' 'coldness,' 'disappointment,' 'grief,' 'guilt,' 'sadness' and 'revulsion,' all in one 13-line paragraph. Fourteen days will pass in this novel. Tehmina performs an astonishing good deed for the little kids next door, a deed to which Sorab and Susan display such an abominable, cowardly, disloyal reaction that if I were Tehmina, I'd be on the next plane to Bombay. But the last pages here are a meditation on what it means to be famous in America and how Tehmina conquers all those around her by the power of her good nature, managing to get the odious Grace ousted from her job, safeguarding her own son's career and even getting him a promotion. Umrigar has undertaken to show us the cultural divide between Indian and American cultures, but in comparing these cultures she's hampered by what may be an abundance of good manners, and even — in the case of the vocabulary-challenged Grace — a reliance on convenient stereotype. Finally, however, she makes an interesting point, one she's mentioned in other works: We make up our own families wherever we are; we choose our circumstances; we are capable of becoming heroes anywhere." Reviewed by Bill Sheehan, the author of 'At the Foot of the Story Tree' and co-editor of the recent anthology 'Lords of the Razor'Thomas Meaney, the literary editor of the New York SunRachel Hartigan Shea, a senior editor at The Washington Post Book WorldPatrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comCarolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Readers see through Tammy's eyes as she struggles to understand her new role in life and the new definition of family. This novel transcends culture and will appeal to a wide variety of readers." Library Journal
"There's nothing wrong with this novel, exactly; it's just that it's as predictable as a made-for-TV movie." Boston Globe
"For all its empathy elsewhere, the novel perpetuates some classist attitudes about the American poor....Still, its meditation on the complex process of building a new life balances these limitations out." Charlotte Observer
In this exquisite novel rich with emotion, beauty, and texture, the bestselling author of The Space Between Us explores the trials a woman faces after her husband dies.
About the Author
Thrity Umrigar, a journalist and associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of three previous novels, If Today Be Sweet, The Space Between Us, and Bombay Time, and a memoir, First Darling of the Morning. She lives in Cleveland.
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