Her second book, The Namesake
, was her first novel and was made into a well-regarded film directed by Mira Nair
and starring Kal Penn
(see MadProfessah review
I read this collection of stories last summer and am now finally getting around to writing up my review.
To do so, I re-read the first half of the collection again.
Although not packing as devastating an emotional wallop as her first collection
of stories Interpreter of Maladies
, this latest collection is still full of superb writing, intriguing characters and genuine insight into the human condition.
The collection begins with the story "Unaccustomed Earth" about a widowed father and adult daughter trying to connect as their lives follow increasingly elliptical orbits and both of them attempt (unsuccessfully) use an obligatory family visit to reveal a secret that they have been itching to share with the other.
After the stunning, heart-breaking first story comes "Hell-Heaven" which has very similar characters from her first novel, The Namesake:
the father is a professor while the stay-at-home mother is slowly going stir-crazy and the first generation Bengali-American kids confound and disappoint their parents.
"A Choice of Accommodations" is the weakest story in the first half of the book, in my opinion. This is partly because I could not connect fully with the central character who is a married Bengali man attending a wedding of a former college crush with his wife on a rare weekend getaway together. Lahiri does excellent work of dissecting her character for the reader with clear, detailed prose--it's just that in this case the characters are a bit remotely drawn.
My favorite story of the collection is "Only Goodness" which would make an excellent Bengali remake of "Ordinary People." The story is told from the perspective of the older daughter of a Bengali couple who succeeds academically but not as well as her younger brother who goes to Princeton. But slowly we realize that all is not well with the younger brother and his "problem" becomes an unmentionable shame to the entire family with several agonizing scenes depicted with surgical precision and maximal emotional impact by Lahiri.
Part One of the collection ends with "Nobody's Business" which is a bit of a departure from Lahiri--slightly. Instead of focusing on the internal machinations and external challenges of the Bengali immigrant family assimilating in America, the general topic basically all of her writings tend to be about, this story is about a family of choice, of three housemates in Cambridge (only one of whom is Bengali) and the complications that can result when you get more information than you really want to know about the people you live with but are not related to. The central character is a Caucasian male graduate student with an unexpressed crush on the beautiful female Bengali character and Lahiri inserts the Bengali social custom of arranged marriages and the social pressure of "marrying well" as a running joke throughout the story.
The second part of the collection is three paired stories featuring Hema and Kaushik, two star-crossed lovers who also (surprise!) happen to Bengali. The first time I read the collection I felt that part of the problem with the second half is that neither Hema or Kaushik are incredibly likable characters--Lahiri is going for a nuanced portrayal which risks the emotional connection of the reader to her story. Additionally, the end of the story, which is surprisingly tragic is completely predictable. Instead of stomach-sinking dread at the inevitable conclusion one feels a sense of annoyance that Lahiri couldn't avoid the temptation of such a pat conclusion.
All in all, although Unaccustomed Earth
is not as uniformly enthralling as her first novel, I do think it is, on balance, a stronger collection than Interpreter of Maladies
(which is saying a lot, since that collection won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, mainly on one devastating short story) and indicates that Lahiri is growing and improving as a writer, one that I look forward to reading again and again for many years to come.Published:
April 1, 2008. Length:
352 pages (Hardcover).
OVERALL GRADE: A/A+.