Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the best-selling book of spiritual exploration, Eat, Pray, Love, has a remarkably engaging voice. Rarely does the conversational tone translate effectively into prose. But Ms. Gilbert nails it. Her style is a marvel of humor, sassiness, and folksiness. In a word: irresistible. And why should one resist? Readers haven't, as her book has sold a gazillion copies.
Good for her...and for Jhumpa Lahiri? I noticed an interesting similarity between Gilbert's book and Lahiri's latest. Both end on a beach--the former near Bali and the latter in Thailand--around the time of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Lahiri's relentlessly fatalistic outlook dictates that the catastrophe will claim one of her characters, while Gilbert's doe-eyed optimism requires that her characters remain safe. Is there any way Lahiri was rebutting Gilbert in the end of her work? Probably not. But I like to contemplate the possibility.
Lahiri, and Indian American writer, has her antennae up for racism. Gilbert devotes one third of her book to time she spent in an Ashram in India--time during which she describes Indian culture as delightful and Indian girls as eminently charming. Her descriptions are a tad prone to caricature--which perhaps irked Lahiri? Perhaps she wanted to puncture the pretty bubble Gilbert draws around South Asia.
The similar descriptions that conclude their books struck me. Lahiri's character Kaushik lowers himself over the side of the boat and "lets go." Later we learn the tsunami claimed him. Gilbert--herself a character in her book--and her lover Felipe dip into the water from their boat and stride safely to shore. Many people dismiss Gilbert's book as whiny chick-lit. Perhaps Lahiri is one of those who can resist Gilbert's charms? Shunning fantasy, Lahiri plants a flag in the territory of realism.