The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

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At first, The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar reminded me of The Help. Obviously, given the very different settings, the book was very different as a whole from The Help. But I loved reading about the friendship and lives of two very different women. The book was beautifully written, and although the realistic issues it portrays are not happy ones, the ultimate message of positive self-worth was hopeful.

The Space Between Us centers on the stories of two women, one a servant to the other, who are separated by class and caste. The “space” of the title refers to the unbridgeable gap between the two women, for although they are both Indian women, distinct caste and social traditions forbid the servant, Bhima, from sitting on her mistress Serah’s furniture, eating off of her dishes, and otherwise becoming a friend in Serah’s life, although Bhima considers her mistress her friend. Serah, on the other hand, recognizes Bhima as an important friend in her life and does not recognize the way in which she discriminates, although her discomfort around Bhima sometimes makes her uncomfortable.

As the story opens, Bhima, who has been a servant in Serah’s house for 30 years, confronts her young granddaughter Maya, who is now pregnant. Education had been Bhima’s hope for Maya’s future, and all now seems to be falling apart. Serah, on the other hand, eagerly awaits the arrival of her own first grandchild, and resents the challenge of Maya’s pregnancy in the face of her own happiness; she had been the one to finance Maya’s own education. As the two women come to terms with their own tragic pasts and hope for the future, Bhima finds the space between the two of them, a space based on tradition, education, and discrimination, to be unbridgeable.

I loved The Space Between Us. Ms Umrigar had a beautiful way with words. I loved getting to know the unfamiliar Indian setting, and Ms Umrigar brought me in to the setting with the dialogue, the descriptions, and her clear English. Although the setting was new to me, the familiar themes of friendship versus distance, privacy versus intimacy, and hope for the future versus hopelessness all resonated strongly. Bhima, as a lower class, lower caste, uneducated woman, must come to accept her own self-worth as a human, as a woman, and as a member of society.

*spoiler* I loved the balloonwalla analogy: that one man, although he was alone, found joy or at least satisfaction in creating beauty out of nothing more than air and balloons. He took life as it came, he didn’t pester for customers, and he found peace in his life. I loved Bhima’s tribute to him. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know what you found the balloonwalla’s message to be. Members of my book club all had different ideas. *end spoiler*

I should also note there is some sexual content in this book; I found it tasteful written.

The Space Between Us wasn’t a happy book (a friend at book club wondered “Are there any happy books about India?”) but it gave hope. To me, that was satisfying.

Note: The Space Between Us was published by WilliamMorrow (HarperCollins) in 2005.

Reviewed on June 24, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have tried two of Umrigar’s other books (The Weight of Heaven and First Darling of the Morning, the latter of which I abandoned) and didn’t like either. But The Space Between Us has often been cited as her best book, and the reviews are always so positive! I do have a copy, and I think I’ll read it at some point. That you compared it, at least at first, to The Help gives me hope! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.

  • I really enjoyed your review. I loved The Space Between Us and completely agree that Ms. Umrigar has a beautiful style of writing. I’m glad you pointed out the balloonwalla analogy as I thought it was wonderful. I thought his message was there’s beauty in the life all around us if we just take it as it comes and don’t force it to be anything it isn’t. We need to look at what comes to us unbidden, without trying to control or manipulate it. If we do this we’ll find peace, calm and satisfaction with our lifer.
    Thank you for remiding me how much I liked this book. I want to read some of her other books

    • Amy » I love your interpretation of the balloonwalla. “We need to look at what comes to us unbidden.” I love it. I really need to remember that. How well this relates to the other book I reviewed this week, THE GIFT OF THE SEA.

  • I thought this book was excellent and agree that Urmigar has a way with words. I am anxiously waiting to read another of her books – Bombay Time is on my shelf.

  • I ask the same, are there any happy books about India? It’s like Ireland — all the books about Ireland seem to be just unrelentingly depressing and miserable. Is it beginning with the letter “I”? Are Indonesian books similarly miserable?

  • I’ve heard wonderful things about Thrity Umrigar and am fascinated by Indian culture. Sounds like I should add this one of the ol’ wishlist!

  • This sounds very much like a short story I recently read about the relationships of an upper class woman from New Delhi to a long series of maids-this novel sounds very interesting

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