Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is a well-written, thoughtful collection of stories focusing on Bengali men and women, largely in the beginning of middle age, who are reflecting on their Indian parents, understanding the responsibilities of parenthood, as well as the full implications of immigration and separation, now that they are becoming parents, and adults, themselves. The tension of culture — generational misunderstandings, the choice to marry an American or adhere to tradition — is a delightfully constant backdrop.  Further, Lahiri has a compelling command over the English language, and every description feels precise and artful.  Yet these stories are ultimately not as compelling or memorable as those in other Lahiri works.  The collection is a quick and enjoyable read, but ultimately, I can’t help feeling that this collection should be celebrated as a technical accomplishment in writing rather than a truly artistic expression of plot and character.

Greater Detail:
There are eight stories in total, though it feels in many ways like far fewer.  For one thing, the last three stories are connected and really function almost like a novella, detailing the adolescence and eventual relationship between Hema and Kaushik. Beyond that though, all of the characters in these stories have far more in common than not — they are similar in age and situation (though one takes place in Seattle and one is traveling, mostly they’re based in and around Boston), most of our main characters are Indian, beginning to have children, and have PhD (one dropped out of medical school, and one has two master’s instead of a PhD).  MIT, Harvard, Mass Ave are fairly common landmarks in most of the stories, and there are sprinklings of details that help immerse us into the Bengali world — spices and saris and of course, various cultural and familial expectations.  A few synopses:

1. Unaccustomed Earth — a widowed father visits his daughter at her new home in Seattle.  Though she had been struggling with whether she should ask him to move in, so that she can take care of him, he has been relishing his freedom: retirement, traveling, and even a new companion.

2. A Choice of Accommodations — a man and his wife leave their daughters with the in-laws in order to enjoy a romantic weekend getaway, all while attending the wedding of one of his old crushes.

3. Hell-Heaven — probably my favorite in the collection, a now-grown woman reflecting on her family’s friendship with a Bengali man whose decisions to stay in America, marry an American, and chart his own course had unexpected, and previously undiscovered, effects on those around him (especially the narrator’s mother).

Lahiri is a strong writer, her attention to detail and symbolism (a Van Eyck painting, safety pins attached to a sari, a lost bangle) and her carefully developed plots are to be applauded, and these are stories that will draw you in and make for a very pleasant afternoon.  Yet ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel that they were almost a little too similar, and the pacing made me feel, at times, almost lethargic.  It’s a strong collection from a talented writer, and there’s little that’s actually wrong with it — it just didn’t resonate with me as a reader, the way her works so often do.

Comparisons to Other Books:
This is Lahiri’s third work – her debut short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, is almost a force of a nature, and would be my top Lahiri recommendation, hands down.  If you’re going to read another, I would pick this collection, followed by her novel, The Namesake, which though it’s been adapted into a film and started promisingly, isn’t nearly as polished.

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Posted in Literary Fiction

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