The work of Indian American novelist and short story writer Jhumpa Lahiri is chick lit for intellectuals. Reading her work is as easy as but infinitely more rewarding than reading Us magazine. I slip right in and walk away fortified, not enervated, as I feel after reading the tabloids.
Which is not to say that Lahiri’s work is at all sensational or exploitative. Just that it grabs my attention instantly. I started her latest book, a story collection, on a plane. I needed to dispel my fear of crashing. I immersed myself in the book and within seconds was in Seattle, where Unaccustomed Earth begins.
What makes Lahiri’s writing so seductive? Love, for one thing. It is not just that Lahiri writes about love, though she often does. It is that she evinces love for her characters and her readers. She is generous. She takes care and time to exhibit every detail of her characters’ lives.
For another thing, Lahiri speaks plainly. She seems constitutionally incapable of being pretentious on the page, nor does she ever confuse us with prose that is experimental. Like Allegra Goodman, a writer I adore, she is telling a story. Period. Other reviewers, such as Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times Book Review, have noted how Lahiri’s mechanics are invisible, how she seems to clear a path for her characters to develop on their own. I think this quality is what allows the reader to immerse herself in the stories as though in a warm, perfumed bath.
Finally, there is Lahiri’s gift for detail. Her language might be plain, but it is always accurate. In re-reading her latest book, I noticed that no scene was sketched-in vaguely. Lahiri observes her surroundings with a scientist’s meticulousness.
Funny, because she writes an awful lot about scientists. One complaint I have about her latest book is that her stories have become a bit familiar: the immigrant Indian family that lives in a Boston suburb. The father works at MIT. The ungrateful Americanized kids resent their parents’ immigrant ways. Yet family stories, like life, are always the same in principle—they differ in the myriad details. Reading Lahiri’s work reassures me. It tells me that my life, in all its banality, is worthwhile.
Ruma is the protagonist of this latest book’s title story. She is a stay-at-home mom to her young son Akash and is pregnant with her second child. She used to be a career woman but that changed when she and her family moved to Seattle. Her father travels and has done so since Ruma’s mother died. When her father comes to visit Seattle, Ruma’s husband says they should invite the father to live with them. But Ruma feels quite conflicted about this idea; when he comes, his visit evokes many memories, not all of which are pleasant. She finally decides in favor of inviting her father to stay, but he won’t. He doesn’t say why. In the end, she figures it out and helps her father with a small act of kindness so poignant it made me cry. Lahiri’s bold emphasis on the everyday things that change us makes her BIG ending all the more incongruous.
Lahiri’s new collection entails two parts. The first part contains four stories, of which Ruma’s tale is one, and the second includes three stories that are connected. In the first of these three connected tales, boy meets girl. This story, “Once in a Lifetime,” is told from the girl’s perspective. The second, “Year’s End,” is told years later from the boy’s perspective. Quickly we guess what the third part will be: boy and girl will meet. And they do, in Europe as it happens, after decades apart.
Despite that the structure is obvious, it propelled me on: I pulsed with anticipation for part three. Still, I know that Lahiri likes to be true to life, so I didn’t expect a ride into the sunset. I needed only recall Gogol’s tortuous path in Lahiri’s last book, The Namesake, to confirm that this is a writer who does not wrap her endings up in a nice bow. Melodrama does not have much place in a Lahiri story. Imagine my surprise, then, at the whopping, deus ex machina conclusion of “Going Ashore,” the last story in Unaccustomed Earth.
One thing that had already made me wary of the second part of Unaccustomed Earth was its political nature. The male protagonist, Kaushik, is a war photographer who laments the plight of the Palestinians. Support for the Palestinian movement is a favorite cause of the Left, and an inflammatory one at that. Lahiri’s stories are so quiet that the presence of this cause celebre jarred me.
I will not give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Lahiri imposes on Kaushik a global event. In the context of the story it rises completely out of the blue. For such a fine, understated writer, this seems highly uncharacteristic. It utterly took me out of the story—literally. I was lying in bed reading it and bolted upright with indignation.
I have been surprised that other reviewers have not hit on this ill-fitting device. Michiko Kakutani in the Times does note the sensational ending, but says: “In the hands of a less talented writer it’s an ending that might have seemed melodramatic or contrived, but as rendered by Ms. Lahiri it possesses the elegiac and haunting power of tragedy.”
If Lahiri’s work is “chick lit,” it is of the most refined order—which makes this tabloid ending all the more unexpected.