Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri


After reading the beautiful "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri last summer, I was smitten. I'd never been a big fan of the short-story, but this was unlike anything I'd ever read before in my life - a study of the human condition presented with elegance and grace. I was almost overwhelmed for Lahiri that this debut effort was awarded the Pulitzer. How on earth do you top that? With "Unaccustomed Earth", that's how.

It is clear to me, however, after reading "Unaccustomed Earth", Lahiri is not a one-hit wonder. In this second collection of short stories, she has tapped into the source of what made Maladies so magical. These stories focus on the complications of mixed race marriages (Bengali and Caucasian), finding the balance between old world and new, the difficult journey of marriage itself, coping with the death of a loved one, and inter-relationships between man, wife, mother, daughter, father, son, lovers and friends. The nuances are subtle, and are full of so much beauty and grace, it is breath-taking. Whether you are Indian or not, the emotions addressed here are those of each and every one of us. I feel like I am being pithy and vague, but few words can really do her work justice.

A grown Bengali women is pleasantly surprised to find common ground with her widowed father who had been emotionally distant throughout her childhood. A married couple get away for the weekend to attend the wedding of a friend, and are forced to face jealousies and "life after kids". Siblings grow distant when the brother falls victim to alcoholism, and attempt to reconcile with potentially disastrous consequences. A young man watches helplessly when his roommate and secret crush endures a dysfunctional love affair.

But the piece de resistance is a three-chapter story about Hema and Kaushik, two young people who enter and leave each other's lives multiple times. Hema narrates one chapter when they are in their teens. Kaushik narrates the second chapter when he is in college. And they both narrate the third, when they are adults. Each time their lives intersect, their fates are irreversibly altered. You finish this set of stories feeling like you, too, have had your set of literary standards altered.

If your hesitation with short-stories is that you feel short-changed on character development, look no further. Lahiri's stories are between thirty and fifty pages long - longer than the average short story. In addition, Lahiri is very efficient with her words, so almost immediately you are drawn into these characters' lives. I've read three hundred page books that give you less. Do I wish the stories were full-length books? Yes and no. You fall in love with some of the characters, and don't want to let them go, but some things are better left where they stand. Just like with the end of Gone With the Wind, I'd rather think about the possibilities than have reality muck it all up.

I'd be hard-pressed to choose my favorite Lahiri novel. You aren't going to go wrong with either one. If you haven't yet experienced the gift of Lahiri's writing, I must implore you to put her on your list of things to read soon.

5 out of 5 stars


29 comments:

Nymeth said...

I haven't read this yet, but I'm glad to hear it's as good as the wonderful Interpreter of Maladies! I just adore Lahiri's writing.

farmlanebooks said...

I still haven't read any Lahriri :-( I own most of them so have no excuse. They are even quite short so I have no idea why I haven't picked one off the shelf. I must correct that soon :-)

JoAnn said...

This was one of my favorites last year. I loved it more than Interpreter of Maladies, too. Can't wait until she has a new book!!

mynovelreviews said...

I haven't read Lahiri yet - from what you write she sounds amazing. I think I'll read Interpreter of Maladies first.

Beth F said...

(ouch!) Quit twisting my arm... I get it. Okay. I'll track down one of Lahiri's collections.

S. Krishna said...

So glad that this is the review you posted on the day when I once again begin reading blogs! Yay! I'm so glad you loved it as much as I did. Lahiri is amazing.

ds said...

Haven't read this one yet & there's no excuse: I loved Interpreter of Maladies. She's as wonderful a writer as you say. Thanks, Sandy!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm so glad to hear you like Lahiri in spite of the author going for short stories instead of a novel. I have Interpreter of Maladies but I've been "afraid" to read it because of the short story thing!

Anna said...

I have one Lahiri book but I'm not sure which one it is, so I'm going to have to go digging. I've heard nothing but good things about this author, so I'm definitely going to have to read it soon.

caite said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
caite said...

a "Sandy 5 out of 5" has to be seriously considered. Especially since I actually like short stories.

(previous deleted for a typo ;-)

Zibilee said...

I have read both Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, and loved them both. I actually have a copy of this book that I got for Christmas, but I haven't read it yet. I agree that Lahiri is an outstanding author and that her writing is really top notch. I am going to have to make time to read this soon. Thanks for the very thoughtful review!!

bermudaonion said...

Your review is fantastic! You've made me want to run out right now and buy this book or Interpreter of Maladies.

Darlene said...

Wonderful review. I'm not a fan of short stories but I listened to Interpreter of Maladies and really liked it. I haven't gotten the audio of this one from the library but I think I'm going to go reserve it now. Hers are about the only short stories I've ever really enjoyed- she puts so much into them.

Julie P. said...

I know I need to read this one. I just need to find the time -- so many books, so little time.

Margot at Joyfully Retired said...

I've discovered short stories in my old age. These two books sound excellent. Thanks for the recommendations.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Lahiri is totally pantyworthy (oh, how I wish I'd come up with that before I read her work!), and her only failing is that she doesn't put out new books often enough! So glad you loved it.

S. Krishna said...

BTW - I'm putting together a South Asian review database that's going to debut tomorrow. Do you mind if I include this review?

Frances said...

All wonderful stories, aren't they? Have to admit that the first is my favorite though. Her relationship with her father just seems to narrowly miss at so many points. In lesser hands, I think that both parent and adult child would have come off rigid but Lahiri's gift for subtlety created something beautiful.

Alyce said...

I'm going to be reading this later this week for our book club. Every review I've read has been positive, so I'm excited about reading it.

Iliana said...

I tend to not read many short stories but this is one collection I'd definitely read. Interpreter of Maladies was wonderful so I can imagine this would be just as good. Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much!

Jenny said...

When I first read this I thought you said you don't see how the author ISN'T a one hit wonder, but then the rest of the review made it sound good so I was so confused, lol! I had to re-read it but figured out where I went wrong. I really need to read this!! I haven't read anything by her... I have The Namesake on my TBR and hope to get to it someday soon!

Trisha said...

I love it that you say the book has character development; I do tend to shy away from short stories for that very reason. I will have to give it a whirl.

Matt said...

Your description of the Hema and Kaushik story really has drawn me. After reading The Namesake, I had fallen in love with this author, in a literary sense, of course! I didn't pick up this one immediately because a few reviewers had mentioned that the stories were very similar, almost developed out of a rut. But since you have always recommended great books to me, I'll check out this short story collection.

Kathleen said...

I haven't read either of these. Sounds like I'm in for a treat!

Avid Reader said...

So glad you loved this one. I thought it was divine.

Melissa M said...

I started listening to this one last year and made it through the first story. I liked it, but not enough to contined. I think this one just might work better in book form.

Alice Teh said...

Sandy, my friend, how is it that you make every book you read and review so irresistible? I love the way you say this: Lahiri very efficient with her words. One thing I'm glad after reading your review is that I have her book in my little personal library.

Jenners said...

I felt exactly the same way about this book. In my opinion, it was stronger than Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri is simply stunning and amazing and a master of the short story. Excellent review.