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The Museum of Failures


The Museum of Failures

I have always been drawn to the history and mystique of India, yet I'm familiar with only the most obvious cultural icons: yoga, jewelry and textiles, food (there are three Indian restaurants within a five-block radius of my apartment), plus some favorite novels: A PASSAGE TO INDIA, THE RAJ TRILOGY, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS and CUTTING FOR STONE, to name a few. The contemporary reality is far more complex, as Thrity Umrigar’s new book makes vividly apparent. THE MUSEUM OF FAILURES is instructive as well as moving.

Umrigar, originally from Bombay and a longtime professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, is a much-praised fictional interpreter of Indian life. She has written nine previous adult novels; HONOR (2022) was a Reese’s Book Club pick. Although her main character, Remy Wadia, is male, this book seems to me autobiographical in the sense that he is divided between his new home in the American Midwest and Bombay, the city of his birth. He also shares Umrigar’s background, as she writes on her website: “Like me, Remy is a Parsi, a member of a tiny ethnic and religious minority in India, practitioners of the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism.” Her description of this unique community (only 100,000 members worldwide) --- its sacred rituals, traditional garments and exotic cuisine --- is part of what makes the novel so fascinating.

"THE MUSEUM OF FAILURES is instructive as well as moving…. As she captures the anguish of people torn between two worlds, Umrigar’s own writing takes on a cinematic brilliance, evoking the ‘imperfect earth’ of the city that Remy once loved and then left."

But THE MUSEUM OF FAILURES has a message that transcends geography. It was inspired by The Farewell, a film in which a young Chinese-American woman must part with her grandmother and return to New York. This, for Umrigar, epitomizes the affliction of all immigrants: “transplanted in new soil, yes, but also rooted in another.” As she captures the anguish of people torn between two worlds, Umrigar’s own writing takes on a cinematic brilliance, evoking the “imperfect earth” of the city that Remy once loved and then left.

When Remy arrives back in his hometown at the beginning of the novel, the split is clear from the outset: “India always disappointed. He had often thought of Bombay as the museum of failures, an exhibit hall filled with thwarted dreams and broken promises.” His frustration is understandable. Now living in Columbus, Ohio, with a flourishing ad agency and a pediatrician wife, Kathy, he has come to Bombay to adopt a child. Monaz, the college-age niece of a close friend, is pregnant and unmarried and ostensibly willing to give up her baby. But the young woman suddenly changes her mind, to Remy’s chagrin. He feels as if Bombay itself, that “unpredictable, wily city,” has attacked him.

Remy is equally vexed by the discovery that his widowed 70-year-old mother, Shirin, is in the hospital with a cough and a fever, and that the neighbors he’d counted on to care for her have fallen down on the job. He idealizes his father, Cyrus, and has a complicated, unhappy history with Shirin. But now his once-powerful mother is weak and silent, all but helpless. As Remy coaxes her to eat and drink and speak over the long weeks of recovery, he confronts his childhood memories--- some pleasantly nostalgic, others painful --- and begins to explore his past.

THE MUSEUM OF FAILURES is thus an immigrant journey but also a more universal evocation of the damage done by family secrets: those time bombs that can explode for an adult child when the history he thought he knew is turned upside-down. It turns out, in this case, that Remy’s father was guilty of a profound betrayal of the family, and that Shirin has sacrificed everything to protect her son from that knowledge.

What follows is fairly predictable. In getting to know and love his mother in an altered context, Remy starts to appreciate what is precious about his homeland. When Kathy suggests a need for “closure” following the emotional upheaval he has been through, for example, he is aware of the gap between them: “In India, they understood the inherent messiness of life, the endless bleeding of one story into another, from one generation to the next. The idea of closure was a fairy tale….” Although not religious, he allows a friend to take him on a visit to the fire temple where Zoroastrians worship --- and where Remy’s father went daily --- and finds comfort there. In America, he’ll always remain a stranger; here, with other Parsees, he feels “an ancient tug, a longing in his blood, a sense of kinship….” His view of the city evolves to the point where he declares: “There was more life, more humanity, in one square inch of Bombay than in fifty miles of Columbus.”

Remy is a likable protagonist: intelligent, sensitive, decent. But his stream of consciousness is more like a flood of self-observation. There isn’t a sight, sound, smell or person he doesn’t react to and analyze in minute detail. This makes for a highly coherent novel but one that feels a little airless. It’s a relief when Shirin tells her own story for three chapters. She is a beautifully etched character.

I also wondered about Remy’s unbelievably patient wife back in Columbus. The twisty plot sends him on a psychological rollercoaster that would test any marriage. Yet we never get a deep sense of Kathy, though there is a lengthy flashback explaining how they met; she is portrayed as a busy, practical woman who, however open-minded, doesn’t quite grasp Indian culture. Nor do we learn anything about Remy’s ad agency and how he built it (an unlikely trajectory, since his original aspiration was to write poetry), except that it seems to function seamlessly in his absence. In short, there isn’t much dimension to his life in Ohio, and that, to me, makes the book feel a bit unbalanced.

The American side of things, of course, is not Umrigar’s focus. By placing Remy in Bombay, she sets the scene for a drama that will force him to grapple with the city he sees as a failure, the father he romanticizes and the mother he fears --- at precisely the moment that he himself hopes to become a parent. It’s a poignant journey with an ending that is better than he could have dreamed of, though different from what he expected.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on September 29, 2023

The Museum of Failures
by Thrity Umrigar

  • Publication Date: September 26, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 164375355X
  • ISBN-13: 9781643753553