Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Museum of Failures

The Museum of Failures by Thrity Umrigar
  The Museum of Failures
Author:  Thrity Umrigar
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  164375355X / 978-1643753553

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "All night long, the crows fought as a jet-lagged Remy Wadia struggled to sleep in an unfamiliar bed."

Favorite Quote:  "Because, ultimately everybody's story was written in scars."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The story of the museum of failures is ultimately about a family. In particular it is about how parents, even with the best of intentions, can sometimes fail their children. It is about the far-reaching impact of those failures for the children carry those scars into adulthood and into their own journey of parenthood. At the heart of the story is Remy Wadia, an adult who had made a life in America but returns to Bombay, India in the hopes of an adoption. Unexpected events lead him on a journey to questions what he has always believed about his life, his family relationships in India, and his own ability and willingness to be a father.

The book, however, defines itself in different ways at different points. "He had often thought of Bombay as the museum of failures, an exhibit hall filled with thwarted dreams and broken promises." Towards the beginning of the book, the book offers Remy's commentary on India, life in India, and of the reasons he left is all behind. Correspondingly, there is commentary about immigrant life in general and specifically in the Unites States under recent regimes. I almost want to stop as political commentary is not what I expect or want in this book. That commentary does not add to and is completely unnecessary for the story. However, this story is firmly set in Bombay. The US side of Remy's life never really developed. Thus, the political commentary does not permeate the story enough to distract from the focal point. 

Within the global commentary are the individual stories. "Of course, there were unhappy people everywhere on earth, and if you catalogued all their griefs and disappointments, every place could be considered a museum of failures. One could argue that this was the universal human condition." The sadness in this story belongs to Remy, his father Cyrus who is deceased but very much a character in this story, and his mother Shirin. Other supporting characters like Monaz and Dina have their own tragic stories that overlap Remy's.

The progression of the story can be measured in the next time the title appears. "There is no room for hope in the museum of failures. Even if it hangs on the walls for a moment, it usually comes crashing down." Cyrus dies without resolving the failures of their family's life. Shirin goes mute, harboring those failures. Remy holds on to the perceived failures of his parents and bears the scars of the choices. Even as an adult who has gone through therapy to resolve the hurts of his childhood, Remy has yet to reckon with that past. The story of what can only be termed abuse is tragic and horrifying. It seems unbelievable because I would like to think that it could not be possible. Yet, we all know that it is.

The next mention of the title highlights where the story ends up. "Because the only way to destroy the museum of failures is to burn every shameful secret that it has ever held." More than failures, this book is all about secrets. The ending of this book packages this family's entire history from before Remy's birth until his now-middle-age neatly with almost a bow. Every loose end is tied up. Every relationship and every concern is resolved. This, to me, lessons the impact of this story. Life is not neat, and a lifetime of issues are not so neatly resolved. Nevertheless, an emotional family story and a depiction of the immigrant experience that will stay with me.

About the Book

(from the author's website)
An immersive story about family secrets and the power of forgiveness from the bestselling author of Reese’s Book Club pick Honor.

When Remy Wadia left India for the United States, he carried his resentment of his cold and inscrutable mother with him and has kept his distance from her. Years later, he returns to Bombay, planning to adopt a baby from a young pregnant girl—and to see his elderly mother again before it is too late. She is in the hospital, has stopped talking, and seems to have given up on life.

Struck with guilt for not realizing just how ill she had become, Remy devotes himself to helping her recover and return home. But one day in her apartment he comes upon an old photograph that demands explanation. As shocking family secrets surface, Remy finds himself reevaluating his entire childhood and his relationship to his parents, just as he is on the cusp of becoming a parent himself. Can Remy learn to forgive others for their human frailties, or is he too wedded to his sorrow and anger over his parents’ long-ago decisions?

Surprising, devastating, and ultimately a story of redemption and healing still possible between a mother and son, The Museum of Failures is a tour de force from one of our most elegant storytellers about the mixed bag of love and regret. It is also, above all, a much-needed reminder that forgiveness comes from empathy for others.

About the Author

(from the author's website)
Thrity Umrigar is the best-selling author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, The Weight of Heaven, The World We Found, The Story Hour, Everybody’s Son and The Secrets Between Us. Her new novel, Honor, is an Indie Next List Pick for January 2022. Umrigar is also the author of the memoir, First Darling of the Morning and three children's picture books, When I Carried You in My Belly, Sugar in Milk and Binny's Diwali. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in over fifteen countries. She is a Distinguished University Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The Space Between Us was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins award, while her memoir was a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors award. If Today Be Sweet was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection, while her other books have been Community Reads selections. Thrity is the winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize, a Lambda Literary award and the Seth Rosenberg prize. She is also the recipient of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard.

Thrity was born in Bombay, India and came to the U.S. when she was 21. As a Parsi child attending a Catholic school in a predominantly Hindu country, she had the kind of schizophrenic and cosmopolitan childhood that has served her well in her life as a writer. Accused by teachers and parents alike of being a daydreaming, head-in-the-clouds child, she grew up lost in the fictional worlds created by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Woolf and Faulkner. She would emerge long enough from these books to create her own fictional and poetic worlds. Encouraged by her practical-minded parents to get an undergraduate degree in business, Thrity survived business school by creating a drama club and writing, directing and acting in plays. Her first short stories, essays and poems were published in national magazines and newspapers in India at age fifteen.

After earning a M.A. in journalism in the U.S., Thrity worked for several years as an award-winning reporter, columnist and magazine writer. She also earned a Ph.D. in English. In 1999, Thrity won a one-year Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University, which is given to mid-career journalists.

While at Harvard, Thrity wrote her first novel, Bombay Time. In 2002 she accepted a teaching position at Case Western Reserve University, where she was recently named a Distinguished University Professor of English. Her articles have been published in national publications such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

Thrity is active on the national lecture circuit and has spoken at book festivals such as the L.A. Festival of Books, the Tuscon Book Festival and the Miami Book Fair International; at universities such as MIT, Harvard University, and Spelman College; and at literary societies, civic and business organizations and public libraries all across the country.

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