This month’s selection was the critically-acclaimed Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn’t like The Namesake as much as I liked Interpreter of Maladies, but a Pulitzer prize winning book is tough to follow-up. So, I was hopeful that the return to short story form would fulfill the earlier promise and I certainly was not disappointed. In fact, I think I like UE better. Although I would agree that she returns to characters of the same background (Bengali, transplants to Massachusetts or thereabouts) this isn’t necessarily a flaw. After all, isn’t this true of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, or other modern, white, male, middle-class, American-born authors? Or white, female authors like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro (both of whom I love but who seldom venture far beyond their native Toronto or Vancouver — except into future dystopias in the case of Atwood).
The new book tends to lean more towards the experience of the second generation immigrants than the first two books. Consequently, the themes covered balance between those that are in many ways universal (e.g. relationships between aging parents and adult children, between siblings, husband/wife) and those that are peculiar to the immigrant experience, e.g. assimilation vs. cultural identity — although I would not say these are unique to South Asian immigrants. All the stories were superb — elegantly written and engaging — my favorite was “A Choice of Accommodations” about a married couple (the husband is second-generation Bengali, the wife is white American), who attend a wedding at the husband’s alma mater, where they find their own marriage has, as the husband puts it, “disappeared” as each partner became absorbed in childrearing and the dailyness of their professional and personal lives. This remark, of course, infuriates another wedding guest who leaves their table in disgust. I wonder if this is common, especially in marriages where the focus is so much on the children that the relationship between partners gets buried.
In short, Lahiri just keeps getting better — highly recommended for a summer read or anytime.
The minute this hits paperback (a rule of ours), I know our neighborhood book group will jump on it–we read Interpreter of Maladies TWICE, because a couple years after our first read the group had turned over membership enough that a lot of folks had missed the first time. And we read The Namesake too (the audio version of that is really lovely–I still have it on my iPod because random five-minute passages read by Sarita Choudury are still nice to hear).