03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Individual Stories, Universal Truth: 'One Amazing Thing' by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The quest for meaning and understanding is both universal and individual: we all search for the reasons we are alive -- the meaning of life -- but each of us is motivated by unique circumstances in seeking our individual justification for living. In One Amazing Thing, the new novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (out in February -- I was lucky enough to receive a review copy), Divakaruni portrays in beautiful prose, haunting characters, and a luminously and ominously developed plot, the universal and individual qualities of the search for meaning in life, as well as the search's timelessness. We have been looking for the meaning of life for centuries, and as long as humankind endures, the seeking will go on. Perhaps it is not the finding of meaning that we need to survive, but the seeking of it.

The characters in One Amazing Thing are all would-be travelers, waiting in the Indian consulate in San Francisco for their visa interviews and permission to travel to India. We first see them through the eyes of Uma, a graduate student cutting class for her visa interview, and lugging along her copy of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in lieu of attending her medieval lit lecture. While she waits for her interview Uma imagines the stories of the people waiting around her: "She had always been this way: interested -- quite unnecessarily, some would say -- in the secrets of strangers."

When an earthquake hits the waiting room, as if "a giant had placed his mouth against the building's foundation and roared", the room becomes a prison, a cocoon encased in concrete, rock, and twisted metal, and all the visa applicants become prisoners. Suddenly thrust into isolation and facing annihilation, they become a group bound not only by human-created circumstance, but also by fate doled out from above, or rather, from the earth below.

We see the parallel as soon as Uma does: as in The Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer's characters are pilgrims to a holy site, the visa applicants are also pilgrims, on their way to India. To pass the time waiting for what they all hope will be rescue -- much as Chaucer's travelers told stories to pass time while traveling to and form the pilgrimage site -- Uma suggests each person recount a story from their life, an "amazing thing" from their own experience. As the stories begin, recounted in various degrees of enthusiasm and hesitation, we begin to understand that the journey each person must travel - their own person pilgrimage - will take place right here in the encased waiting room, and that the survival of their spiritual selves is as dependent on the telling of these tales, as the survival of their corporal selves is dependent on the basic acts of sharing food, water, and medicine until help comes.

Divakaruni is a beautiful writer, using words as lithely and effortlessly as breathing, and while she breathes, she sings: the sound of a broom sweeping rhythmically across the floor is likened to "a woman walking down a staircase in a long silk dress", a story told travels through the brain "glowing and tumbling end of over end, like a meteor in a slow-motion movie clip", and an asthmatic struggling to breathe has a heart which "fluttered like a snared bird".

Divakaruni is also a writer for whom the construction of plot and character seems effortless, smooth, and holistic. She eases seamlessly from narrator to narrator, conveying in their words and tone, and in their physical descriptions, the individuality of each character as well as their role in the ongoing story of survival amidst the ruins of the collapsed building. Their personal histories, both what they share with others and what is kept inside their heads for our perusal alone, illuminate further each character's distinct personality as well as the core of human emotions and desires shared among them all - and all of us readers.

Not all of the stories Davakaruni constructs for her characters are compelling, especially given the build-up to those stories that are told hesitantly (we expect bigger fireworks or darker secrets) but taken all together, the stories work to create one story that holds us from the first page to the last.

Good story-telling is the recounting of a journey, a telling of a story that moves forward while including all needed information about the past and present to make the forward motion possible, plausible, and interesting. As the stories of each character in The Canterbury Tales told a piece of the social and political history of Chaucer's time, the stories of Divakaruni's characters are from our time in history, our post-9/11, post-colonial world that is globally-connected and yet still culturally-divided. One Amazing Thing does one amazing job in weaving together a slew of individual stories to tell the compelling story of a universal journey. Do the visa applicants make it out alive? The answer to that question, in the end, is less important than the resolution found by each character of their personal reason for wanting to make it out alive, and to continue the quest that is life.