When I finished the first story in this collection, I knew I was in the hands of a master short story writer. In just 55 or so pages, Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of Ruma's father visiting her new home in Seattle for the first time. But in the course of those 55 pages, I felt like I received a fully realized view into Ruma and her father's past, present and future. I was stunned how Jhumpa Lahiri was able to fit so much into the storyâRuma's relationship with her mother and her grief for her unexpected death, the state of Ruma's marriage to her husband Adam, her father's new relationship with a woman, the family's dynamics growing up, the loneliness of being a mother in a strange new city. Yet the story never felt rushed, forced or jumbled; it unfolds naturally and eloquently. Each little detail is presented when it should be and gives you another piece to Ruma and her father. At the end, each little piece becomes part of a fully-formed mosaicâcomplete, colorful, shining and whole.
And Jhumpa Lahiri's skill continued with the rest of the stories. Each one had the same sense of wholeness and completeness to it. At the end of each story, I felt full and satisfiedânever wanting more, never needing more. Each story was a perfect fully formed pearl.
The book itself is divided into two parts. Part One has five separate "stand alone" stories. Part Two, which is called "Hema and Kaushik," has three storiesâone for Hema, one for Kaushik, and one that brings them together.
Although each story has its own feel and characters, Lahiri returns to and touches on similar themes in each story that tie the collection together as a whole. The experience of being an immigrant and coming from India to America is a common thread (specifically, a Bengali Indian). Marriageâarranged marriages vs. "chosen" marriagesâis a theme that runs throughout each story. The "Americanization" of Indian children and parents is yet another recurring thread. In addition, Lahiri uses Cambridge, Massachusetts as the setting for several of the stories.
Yet even though you might accurately call this collection "an examination of the Indian immigrant experience," the truths and emotions of these characters are universal. I felt connected to each of Lahiri's characters. I recognized facets of my life in their lives. I heard my thoughts in their thoughts. I saw myself reflected in them. Although our culture, upbringing, location and families might be different, Jhumpa Lahiri's characters spoke to me and it rang true.
The story that most affected me was the third Hema and Kaushik story, "Going Ashore." This was a masterful piece of storytelling, and the ending just wrenched my heart out. The very last sentence of the story is so simple and stark yet reading it brought tears to my eyes, and I felt my heart ache a little bit.
If you have prejudices against short stories like I did, do yourself a favor and read Unaccustomed Earth. To me, these stories are perfect examples of what you can do with the short story form. I know that they will be the standard by which I judge all other short story collections in the futureâand the bar has been set exceedingly high.
This is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. The stories are so inciteful, real, engaging and interesting that it is as though you experience them more than just read them. They are often bittersweet, always captivating and they leave you thinking about them long after you have put them down. Highly recommended.
I was introduced to Jhumpa Lahiri's work when, during my undergraduate years, a professor assigned The Namesake in a course on literature and film. I hated the movie (for reasons I won't get into here), but I absolutely loved the book. Since that time, I have recommended Lahiri's work to countless people.
It saddens me that this collection of her short stories sat on my bookshelf unread for quite some time--probably about two years. Lahiri beautifully captures the human experience; she expertly describes the details, the minutiae of everyday life--a teabag left to dry for use again later in the day; a simple white dress with a square neckline, emphasizing the collarbones; a phone cord stretching from the kitchen into a closed bedroom. These stories are character-driven--each is less about the events, more about the self-realization of each character. None of the stories wrap up neatly, which both inspires and unnerves me. I like things to be tidily wrapped, put away, perhaps with a big red bow. Lahiri doesn't do that in these stories, but that is what makes them so haunting.
My favorite story was the last story in the collection, "Going Ashore", though I did enjoy "Unaccustomed Earth" and "Only Goodness" a lot. I also really liked Sang, the main character in "Nobody's Business." "Going Ashore" made me long for my days as a graduate student; I've been considering going back and attaining another degree, but I don't know in what. Hema made me want to do this even more. Hema's time in Italy, and later her time spent with Kaushik in Italy, was a joy to read.
I will say, the stories are rather depressing. As I read, I felt myself questioning my own relationship, which is currently at a crossroads--engagement or nothing. I didn't like the way the stories made me feel, but I don't know that this is necessarily a negative thing. It is certainly a testament to Lahiri's exquisite ability to capture the human experience and human emotion. However, all of the stories seemed similar to me. Sure, the characters are different and the actual plot is different in each, but they all turn out the same, all of the characters experience the same emotions in the same ways. Sometimes, this was a pleasure to read, as this is exactly how anyone would respond. At other times, the stories seemed to drag to an already assumed ending.
I should probably say that I had unrealistic expectations about this book. I remember loving The Namesake so much that I think I expected even more from this collection.
I have read all of Jhumpa Lahiri's other work, and this one does not disappoint. She has such a way of drawing you in, making you really care about these characters. A lovely book.
I didn't realize until the middle of the second chapter that this is a collection of short stories and not a novel. In confusion, I read the front flap of the book jacket that explained these were "related stories." Duh. Most readers will probably not make the same mistake.
Although I generally prefer novels, Lahiri's lyrical style, cultural detail and unpredictable plots made this a worthwhile read.