Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Brave New World: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Lahiri's third book begins with this lovely and apt epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House," and sets the tone for a collection of short stories that feels familiar, yet more troubled and troubling than her previous work.

Many of Lahiri's touchstones are present in Unaccustomed Earth -- Bengali brides who make their peace with life in Boston and its suburbs, sullen teens dragged to India for summer vacations, arranged marriages, mixed marriages, and the conflicts present in each. However, these plot points feel lived-in, not tired. And while Lahiri's characters tend to go through similar life experiences, this is a very different book from Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.

The title story is the first, and my favorite of the eight collected here. It involves a woman whose recently widowed father comes to spend a week with her and her son in Seattle. During his visit, she comes to realize how much she needs him, just as he's realizing that he doesn't want to be part of another family.

Another stand-out is "Only Goodness," a story about a woman who quietly puts together the pieces of a successful life in the shadow of her screw-up younger brother, and her opportunity to welcome him back into the fold.

The three intertwined stories in Unaccustomed Earth, "Once in a Lifetime," "Year's End," and "Going Ashore," follow the lives of Hema and Kaushik, who meet as children and are brought together again years later. These stories have been singled out as the collection's high point, and while I agree that they are the most emotionally complex and searing thing that Lahiri has written, their bleakness keeps me from thinking of them as "favorites."

It seems silly to write at length about a book that's been so widely and well-reviewed in recent weeks, particularly when I agree with the bulk of those reviews. Fans of Lahiri's previous books will be pleased with Unaccustomed Earth; however, they should be prepared for stories that are less warm, less likable than her previous work. These are stories that deal with the pricklier, more unpleasant sides of marriage, parenting, growing up, and growing old. Still, it's good to see that a remarkably talented writer isn't standing still, but forging ahead into undiscovered, if hostile, countries.


monster paperbag said...

I read The Namesake and I enjoyed it. Will try this one, too. :)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

You are the first blogger I've seen review this. I'm surprised by that; I'd have thought more people would have read it.

mary_m said...

Actually, come to think of it, most of the reviews I've seen have appeared in the mainstream media.

I wonder if the lit bloggers weren't like "Why bother" over this book since everyone and their brother had already covered it.

Also, this was one of those books where the publishers weren't going to go distributing review copies to lowly bloggers - I got mine from the library.

Susie said...

I loved "Interpreter of Maladies" so I have high hopes for this book, even though, as you mention, it is different from her earlier works. Thank you for reviewing it.