Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri [in Bloomsbury Review]
Thank goodness the Pulitzer-winning Jhumpa Lahiri went back to her short story roots: The Namesake was okay, but disappointing after The Interpreter of Maladies which was such a shockingly remarkable debut.
Holy moly, now comes this unforgettable collection of eight perfect little gems, revealed with understated grace and haunting power about the lives of Bengali American immigrants, their American-born children and the in-between existence they each lead, unaccustomed in varying degrees to their adopted land.
The title story opens with a pregnant young mother who has just moved to Seattle from a more familiar Brooklyn, waiting with some trepidation for her widowed father’s visit. Told in alternating voices of daughter and father, secrets unfold that threaten their already precarious relationship.
In “Hell-Heaven,” a young woman learns of her mother’s long-ago unrequited love for a younger graduate student only when she herself has her own heart broken. Unrequited love returns to haunt and question in “A Choice of Accommodations,” when a Bengali American man takes his wife to the wedding of his schoolboy crush, and again in “Nobody’s Business” when a graduate student can only love his Bengali American roommate from afar. In “Only Goodness,” an older sister is unable to save her younger brother from his alcoholism.
The final three stories link together to make up “Hema and Kaushik,” a spare novella about two would-be lovers. Hema’s voice remembers “Once in a Lifetime,” set in 1974 when Hema is 6 and Kaushik 9, when the two immigrant families parted as Kaushik’s family returns to India. Kaushik takes over in “Year’s End,” which moves forward to Kaushik’s senior year at Swarthmore when he hears from his father early one Sunday morning that, after the fact, Kaushik now has a much-younger stepmother and two young stepsisters. The two voices converge in “Going Ashore,” some two decades later in Rome where Hema is on leave from her Wellesley teaching job, taking a few months alone before she enters into an arranged marriage with a man she respects but does not love. Unexpectedly, Hema finds Kaushik instead and chooses a different life, but sometimes choices are not always inevitable. And on that final page, with Lahiri’s signature subtlety, heartbreak was never so rewarding.
Review: “TBR’s Editors’ Favorites of 2008,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2008