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In the stunning title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father, who carefully tends the earth of her garden, where he and his grandson form a special bond. But he's harboring a secret from his daughter, a love affair he's keeping all to himself. In "A Choice of Accommodations," a husband's attempt to turn an old friend's wedding into a romantic getaway weekend with his wife takes a dark, revealing turn as the party lasts deep into the night.
In "Only Goodness," a sister eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish, and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in "Hema and Kaushik," a trio of linked stories -- a luminous, intensely compelling elegy of life, death, love, and fate -- we follow the lives of a girl and boy who, one winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome.
"Unaccustomed Earth" is rich with Jhumpa Lahiri's signature gifts: exquisite prose, emotional wisdom, and subtle renderings of the most intricate workings of the heart and mind. It is a masterful, dazzling work of a writer at the peak of her powers.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 39.
- Review Date: 2008-01-28
- Reviewer: Staff
The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals. (Apr.)
New Lahiri collection explores immigrants' path to assimilation
In her relatively brief career, Jhumpa Lahiri already has carved out a distinctive literary niche. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and author of a critically and commercially successful novel, The Namesake, her tales of Indians encountering contemporary American life have resonated with a wide swath of readers. Her latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, will only burnish that estimable reputation. It's an emotionally astute, character-driven assortment of stories that carry forward and deepen the themes she's explored in her previous works.
Except for some fleeting glimpses, Lahiri has abandoned the Indian settings that formed the backdrop for several stories in Interpreter of Maladies. Most of her characters have settled into a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle in affluent suburbs from Boston to Seattle. Allusions to the symbols of their success, Ivy League colleges and luxury automobiles chief among them, are sprinkled generously throughout these pages. Indeed, but for occasional references to Indian foods like luchis or dal, or a description of one character's closet full of saris, these stories might be those of any upwardly mobile Americans. If there's a unifying theme in Unaccustomed Earth, it's the way these immigrants have assimilated so quickly and effectively into American life.
The collection's title story tells of Ruma, a vaguely dissatisfied housewife who's raising a young son with little assistance from her husband, a hedge fund manager. When her widowed father comes to visit and quickly bonds with the young boy, she wrestles with the decision of whether to invite him to live with her family, discovering only after he departs that he's involved in a relationship with another woman. "A Choice of Accommodations" examines the simmering tensions in the marriage of Amit and Megan, as they return to Amit's New England boarding school to celebrate the wedding of a female friend from his school days. In "Only Goodness," Lahiri writes poignantly of Sudha, a woman trying to rescue her younger brother Rahul from his descent into a life of alcoholism, and her "fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other."
Part Two of Unaccustomed Earth consists of three linked stories, following the lives of Hema and her childhood friend Kaushik over more than 30 years. In "Once in a Lifetime," Kaushik's family comes back to America after several years in India when his mother develops breast cancer. They move into Hema's home, where they spend several awkard months. Five years later, Kaushik's father has entered into an arranged marriage with a woman some 20 years his junior and the mother of two children, and in "Year's End" Kaushik recounts his struggle to accept the new domestic arrangement. Finally, in "Going Ashore," Hema and Kaushik meet by chance in Rome. She's a Latin scholar on sabbatical and he's an accomplished photojournalist. Their encounter kindles an intense love affair, which ends when Kaushik leaves for a magazine position in Hong Kong. The story's climax, at a Thai resort on December 26, 2005, is haunting and almost unbearably sad.
Lahiri's prose style is graceful, elegant, understated. It's awkward to call thesepieces "short stories"the shortest is 24 pagesand, like Alice Munro, Lahiri is adept at handling chronology, ranging backward and forward in time, compressing lifetimes into a single artfully crafted paragraph. Relish this gorgeous collection and contemplate the prospect of the work she'll produce as she reaches her artistic maturity.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.