Like most (if not all) of the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book, Unaccustomed Earth, I am ambivalent. On the one hand, the stories are masterfully written, full of apt characterizations and quiet insights. Lahiri’s evocative prose dismantles the literary “fourth wall,” beckoning readers into her characters’ world. Afterwards they can only look back in amazement and consternation to find that she’s bricked it up behind them, leaving them stranded in stories that are claustrophobic and restricting, despite the fact that they jump from one locale to another (Calcutta to London to Boston to Rome, and back again).
The book is divided into two parts. The first is composed of five unrelated stories; the second of three related stories about the lives of two characters, which combined form a sort of loose vignette.
Even though Lahiri’s stories are separate, the characters in each are familiar to the point of repetition, as if they were all part of the same dysfunctional family. Jhumpa Lahiri is a member of the group of talented, Bengali women writers who have risen into prominence; her peers include Bharati Mukherjee and Kiran Desai. In many ways, though, she has less in common with them than she does with an author far removed from her in both time and place: Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lahiri focuses on the quotidian lives of her characters, and like Austen, is very preoccupied with everyone’s marital status. But Austen gives us hundreds of pages to become acquainted with her characters, to become apprised of their habits and proclivities. By the end of her books, we feel as if we have been reading a chronicle of the lives of very old friends whom we have come to know only gradually—all of which renders the intimacy all the more gratifying. In Lahiri’s stories, the closeness is forced. The reader feels trapped with the characters, as if each story were a cramped elevator ride with a bickering family unabashed by the presence of strangers. It is not only that Lahiri’s characters are unhappy. Though they all are. The upright, self-sacrificing Indian wives, neglected by their husbands and children, are always profoundly lonely and unfulfilled. They stay at home and cook, wear saris, and put vermillion powder in their hair. The husbands—all doctors or physicists—feel suffocated by their arranged marriages, and put-upon by their families. The children are ungrateful and guilty, annoyed by their guilt, and nebulously miserable. They have no idea of what they want except to be different from their parents. Without exception, they play musical instruments and make good grades; later on they go to top East Coast schools: Cornell, Yale, MIT, Bryn Mawr.
More so than in her past books, Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Lahiri incorporates white Americans into her stories. Mostly they are used as foils, their ignorance serving to underline certain aspects of Bengali culture. Invariably, they fail to understand their Bengali spouses or lovers, are frustrated by their inability to reconcile their inherited culture with their adopted one. I say Bengali, and not Indian, because Lahiri almost never even mentions any other subgroups. There are no Tamils or Kashmiris here; only in one story is a Punjabi even mentioned. She is not so discriminating with her white characters. It doesn’t matter what their origins are; it is sufficient that they are not Bengali. To be fair, she is not the only writer who does this. While Bharati Mukherjee is a bit more adventurous in her choice of characters—on of her more memorable stories features an Italian-American woman bringing her Afghani boyfriend home for Thanksgiving—if there are Indians in her stories, they are always Bengali. This leads me to wonder is there is some kind of taboo against writing across groups. I do not know. But if a rose is a rose, and an American is an American, clearly an Indian is not an Indian.
Lahiri is adept at writing from the point of view of Bengali men and women, and Caucasian men; she can access the feelings of parents and children alike. Her first book since becoming a mother, in Unaccustomed Earth she displays a rich understanding of the potent joy that a child brings, as well as the accompanying fear and sadness. There is a strange dichotomy intrinsic to being a parent, the obsessive love accompanied by the imperative to prepare the child for eventual independence. Stories like Only Goodness and Year’s End delicately explore the importance of interfamily relations. As for matters of the heart, her portrayal of the young graduate student Paul, smitten with his elusive Bengali roommate, is compelling. It is easy to understand the exotic allure of Sangeeta (“Sang”), who regularly receives marriage proposals from suitors she has never met.
Indeed, the one archetype that Lahiri cannot seem to capture convincingly is that of the American female. The weakest story in Interpreter of Maladies featured a character named Miranda, who was having an extra-marital affair with an Indian man. Reading the tale, one got the feeling that Lahiri had an utter lack of insight into the character, had no idea what might be motivating her. In Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri does not even attempt to again access this particular psyche, instead relegating white women to lesser, secondary roles, where is acceptable for them to remain inscrutable. They are baffling creatures, brash yet fragile, perpetually demanding.
Although the stories are exclusively about relationships, friendship is not a prominent feature in any of them. Most of the characters are isolated, physically or emotionally. The only enduring ties are to family—links that seem like bondage rather than bonds. Everything else is ephemera. Marriages fizzle and disappear like bubbles from Champagne; friends leave abruptly and reappear as strangers.
As I have said, all of Lahiri’s characters are unhappy, but none uniquely so. This alone is not what keeps her stories from being satisfying. It is the fact that the people are unable to transcend their unhappiness, unable to broaden their vision to see beyond their immediate situations, unable to compromise. Her stories are full of ultimatums, burned bridges and protracted silences. Again and again, her characters lament that “things will never be the same.” They remain transfixed by the conviction that an act is irrevocable, a transgression unforgivable. These are not stories of reparation of rejuvenation. They are not stories of hope. There is no growth, no self-discovery, only estrangement and denial. To believe in change (especially for the better) is to be deceived. This strips the book of any real message, turning it instead into a litany of petty offenses. It renders the characters unsympathetic. They trust no one, have resigned themselves to disappointment. And if they have ceased to care, why should we even try?