352 pp., $25.00
Reviewed by Elissa Eliott
New Stories in Worn-Out Soil
There is a quiet and subtle beauty to Jhumpa Lahiri's writing. It's never flowery, never too much. You may remember her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000, or perhaps her novel, The Namesake, which gave Gogol—her boy–then–man protagonist who detested the birth name he'd been given—a second life in theaters around the country.
Superficially, Unaccustomed Earth is fraught with the same assimilation hurdles—the frustrations of second–generation immigrant children attempting to conform to American or English culture against their parents' insistence on maintaining their homeland traditions. It's something Lahiri knows quite well, being raised in a Bengali home in Rhode Island. It's fitting, then, that the title of her new collection comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom–House"—his preface to The Scarlet Letter: "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."
What distinguishes Lahiri is her sensitivity both to story and language. The Bengali details are there, in fresh and vivid light, for those of us who are unfamiliar with the culture, but ultimately, it's the human universals—love, betrayal, rivalry, lust, dishonesty—and subsequent unfolding dramas that convince you you're under the spell of an observant and truthful narrator, one who will be bluntly and meticulously honest, to the point of not sparing her protagonists' fates.
There are eight stories in all. The three that conclude the book constitute a trilogy of sorts, linking two characters who meet as teens under dire circumstances, then again as love–struck adults. I would tell you which story was my favorite, but that would be like saying, "Do you want this chocolate or this chocolate?" when any one of them would do the trick. That said, "Unaccustomed Earth" is the most tender of them all. A widowed father travels to Seattle to visit his married daughter and family. What he doesn't know is that his daughter feels an annoyed obligation to invite him to live with them. What she doesn't know is that he's met someone and doesn't want to be bound by his daughter's limited and claustrophobic life. It's this plausible tension that heightens the anticipation of their interaction.
"Hell–Heaven" is narrated by a daughter who recalls the acrid tang of thwarted and unrequited love between her mother and a lonely Bengali bachelor. "A Choice of Accommodations" highlights a couple who travel to a quaint ski lodge in the mountains, ostensibly to attend an old friend's wedding but in reality to face the hidden demons in their marriage. "Only Goodness" tells of an older sister who introduces her younger brother to alcohol, to the Stones and the Doors, trying to be a cool sister–friend, but everything goes awry when his drinking devours his living. "Nobody's Business" is about a girl who moves into a shared apartment. When Paul, one of her housemates, discovers the truth about her boyfriend, he can't bring himself to tell her, and the situation deteriorates rapidly.
I have one minor complaint. Are all Indian–Americans in high–profile postgraduate jobs, working as engineers or architects or doctors? I think not. But this is the impression I get, reading the stories, and I wish it weren't so. Maybe I'm being picky, but the characters and their families start to blur together, and the course of their actions is too predictable (love always ends in illicit affairs).
If it weren't for Lahiri's exquisite prose, I'm afraid I would have lost interest long ago. But then again, just so you know how much of a waffler I am regarding Lahiri, I have to remind you that her books shimmer with persuasive glimpses of human nature, in a way that few books can and do. And so I'll lay my indecisive arguments at your feet and applaud Lahiri for her truth–telling, wherever it may lead her.
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota. She's at work on a novel about Eve.
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