The Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
Spare, precise, vivid and powerful, this is one of my favorite short story collections.  The overarching themes of immigration, relocation, loss, and recreation of identity explored here perfectly showcase Lahiri’s powerful voice and an undeniable attention to detail.  We are immersed in stories that range in location from India to the East Coast and feature refugees, lonely children, Indian tourists visiting India, couples regretting arranged marriages or just coming to terms with the loss of a child.  Though this was her debut collection, it won the Pulitzer, and is an emotional, memorable tour-de-force that will linger with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Greater Detail:
There is such a huge variety of viewpoints, characters. and story arcs in this collection that the best way to describe it would be to give a tiny description of some of the best:

1. A Temporary Matter — the opening story, my favorite in the collection, and one of my favorites ever, poignantly explores a well-educated, emotionally mature adult trying to deal with the fallout and ramifications from the birth of a stillborn child.

2. The Interpreter of Maladies — a linguist who once dreamt of being a translator for diplomats now makes his living interpreting symptoms and illnesses for a local doctor, and giving tours of local attractions on the weekends.

3. Sexy — two parallel adultery stories explore all the different sides of why someone might begin, or stay in, an extramarital relationship.

4. This Blessed House — a successful Indian man finally decides to marry, succumbing to a somewhat arranged marriage… but now, just a few months into the marriage, he wonders if he’s made a mistake as they discover a series of Christian artifacts in their new home, and have surprisingly different reactions.

5. The Third and Final Continent — a man immigrates to the US from London (and before that, India), thinking back to the beginning of his American days now that he has a fully grown son himself.

These stories have differing voices, viewpoints, settings, and time periods, so that almost any reader can find something or someone to relate to — but each is engrossing in its own way.  Though some may leave you near tears, others are quite hopeful, borderline happy (a rare thing in literary fiction!).  Though most of the protagonists are either Indian or involved directly with someone who is Indian, the cultural backdrop here is compellingly, richly drawn.

Comparisons to Other Books:
This was Lahiri’s debut collection, and I think it’s her best work. I’ve heard differing opinions on The Namesake (which I thought started wonderfully, but didn’t have follow-through), and I believe Unaccustomed Earth is technically superior, but emotionally far less compelling, so if you read only one Lahiri book, this should be it.

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