Monday, November 01, 2021

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

The whole time I was reading this collection of short stories, I was wondering what took me so long to get to it. I've had an ARC (which came from a free cart at the library, not the publisher) since 2008 and have set it on my bedside TBR pile numerous times, but it always has ended up getting reshelved and saved for another day. I'm glad I finally read it as it is 5-star brilliant. I can still see the characters in my head and it's the kind of book in which the stories are so thorough that you need to let them sit and roll around in your head before moving on to the next. That's my favorite kind of story. I like stories that make me think, make me even wonder where the characters are, now, or what happened after. 

Some features of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri:

  • Main characters  who have Indian parents who have emigrated to the US.
  • MCs who have traveled regularly to visit grandparents in some part of India.
  • Challenges of standing out and how that discomfort feeds into the large communities of Indian immigrants (the way they stick together as a community) in the US and possibly the reason some return to India.
  • Mixed marriages (usually Indian/American and a Caucasian) and the things individuals in these marriages can't understand about each other. 
  • The pressure of parental expectations — specifically Indian parents, who tend to have driven children in fields like law, medicine, and engineering and expect their children to do the same or the pressure of keeping to tradition. 
  • Fathers who are distant and mothers who spend their time cooking elaborate Indian meals.
  • Frequently, the loss of a parent. 
  • Characters who stopped over in London before moving on to the US or end up there or another country, where they feel comfort in being absorbed by the multinational crowd. 

There are two sections of the book and the second part is told in 3 interconnected stories, each from a different point of view. The first is that of a boy whose family lived in the US, moved back to India, and has returned. Then, the viewpoint of a girl who had a crush on that boy, didn't forget him when he left, and is baffled when his family moves in with hers temporarily when they return to the US. The final story tells about how they meet in Italy when she is 37 and he's 40. 

Trigger warning for woman dying of cancer: The final section spends a little too much time on the mother with cancer. For some of us, this hits a little too close for comfort. I will not read this book again, partly because of that. 

Highly recommended - I can see why Lahiri is an award-winning author and I look forward to The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, both of which I have on my shelves. In spite of my warning about that last section, the stories are phenomenal, the characters well-rounded, their conversations and thoughts and concerns believable. I didn't think the stories always had strong endings, but I thought they were otherwise excellent. 

Having highly recommended the book, I will also add that I gave it a 4/5 at Goodreads for bumming me out, particularly in that final section. I like a bit more light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. But, the writing style, the depth of detail in particular, is 5-star and that point off is merely about how the book made me feel. Rating books is always subjective, of course. The bottom line, though, is that Unaccustomed Earth is worth reading and a very impressive collection. 

Note: I thought this was my first by Lahiri but then I looked up her work because I couldn't remember the latter of the two titles still on my shelf and I was reminded that I read The Lowland by Lahiri in 2013. Link leads to my mini review, which notably says this:

I did, however, feel like The Lowland was written in what I'd call the Bummery Things Happen mode of literature. 

So, the feeling of being bummed by her writing persists. And, yet, it's so good that I will definitely read the other two books I own. Also, here's a cat with Unaccustomed Earth because I'm here to give you all the cat content. 

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  1. I don't think I've read anything by this author yet? I wonder if a start with the short stories would be good. Sounds like they're the good kind of short stories (often I feel left hanging, like there should be so much more!)

    1. They're beautifully written, a bit longer than average, and sometimes they do feel like they leave you hanging but not always. It just depends on the story. I recommend it mostly for the well-rounded character development and her powerful descriptive skill. It doesn't feel like there were holes in the way she described things; you will end a story feeling like you were there.

    2. I like the sound of that. And sometimes I need short reads I can dip in and out of. . .

    3. Yes, that's one reason I love short stories. I hope you get to read it soon and enjoy it!


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