This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book about Bengali Indians in America – the first was Interpreter of Maladies (a book of short stories), and the second was The Namesake, which is a full-length novel. I didn’t like either of these books so my expectations for Unaccustomed Earth were quite low.
One would think that she was by now done with the Indian American experience. I mean what could she have more to say? Turns out quite a lot.
This book has eight longish short stories:
- Unaccustomed Earth is a story about a married woman’s uncomfortable relationship with her father after her mother passes away.
- Hell-Heaven is about a married woman in an arranged marriage who has a crush on another man
- A Choice of Accommodation is about a mixed-marriage couple rediscovering romance on a getaway
- Only Goodness is about a woman who introduces her brother to alcohol and then guiltily realizes that she may have helped him on the road to alcoholism
- Nobody’s Business is about a young woman in a doomed romance that is observed by her sympathetic male American housemate.
The next three stories form a trilogy with the same characters appearing in all 3 stories, and each drawing on events in the previous story. The protagonists are Hema and Kaushik who meet as children in Once in a Lifetime. Their parents are friends who with time realize they don’t have much in common at all. The next story Year’s End deals with Kaushik struggling after his mother’s death and being unable to accept his new step mother and her children. This leads him on a path as a wanderer. In the last story Going Ashore, Hema and Kaushik meet as adults and enjoy a passionate affair. Will they make their lives together? Or, is this another episode in both their lives?
The title is from a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne that is worth repeating, and which I think conveys the theme of the book very effectively…
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.
There are many criticisms that can be leveled against this book. It draws on too narrow a sub-section of people – Bengali Americans who are highly educated and almost fully integrated into the American way of life. None of the stories are very uplifting, also nothing much happens in some of them.
In spite of these drawbacks though, I love the book, mainly because of the lovely writing. It’s understated and yet lush and dreamy at the same time. Short stories are not my favorite genre, but these stories are pretty long, allowing Jhumpa Lahiri to take her time setting up the characters and the story. I loved this old-fashioned almost Victorian way of story-telling.
All the short stories are uniformly good. The only exception for me was A Choice of Accommodation, which was a non-story, with nothing really happening. The final trilogy of Hema and Kaushik is mind-blowing, and I just couldn’t guess which direction this story would go.
Terrific stuff. One beautiful reading experience. Jhumpa Lahiri has redeemed herself in my eyes with this book.
Thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.