Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2008 collection of stories, is a primer on how to write memorable works of short fiction. There’s nothing postmodern or formally inventive about the eight pieces collected here, four of which appeared originally in the New Yorker. But if you like old-fashioned storytelling and compelling narratives about family life, especially families comprised of people from different ethnic cultures, then Lahiri’s third book—Interpreter of Maladies, her début collection, and the novel The Namesake were the first two—will be a rewarding reading experience.
The stories in Unaccustomed Earth are about mixed-race couples—or, in a couple of instances, would-be couples—in which one person is Bengali and the other Caucasian. Almost all of them are prosperous: The characters are hedge-fund managers or professors or researchers at Mass General Hospital, people who take overseas vacations, often to visit family in Calcutta, without worrying about the cost. A theme that emerges again and again in Lahiri’s work is the inevitable confusion over social roles whenever families of differing backgrounds unite. In “Year’s End,” the Indian woman who is new to America and about to become the narrator’s stepmother—his mother died at an early age from cancer—doesn’t know how to drive and can’t understand why her future stepson doesn’t want her to serve him his breakfast.
But these excellent stories are mainly about love and heartbreak and the vagaries of desire, universal topics that have little to do with one’s country of origin. The title story deals with a young mother’s conflicted feelings about her widowed, 70-year-old father, a man who since his wife’s death has traveled around the world to help him cope with his loss. His daughter considers asking him to move in with her, her husband, and their son, not knowing that her father has a traveling companion he has fallen in love with and whose identity he wants to conceal. “A Choice of Accommodations” is about a Bengali man who, with his wife, journeys to the boarding school he once attended for the wedding of the headmaster’s daughter, a former lover. And in “Nobody’s Business,” a Caucasian man falls secretly in love with his Bengali roommate, a bookstore clerk whose wealthy boyfriend is cheating on her.
Each story is elegantly written and builds to a heartrending conclusion. The title piece, in particular, is one of the most beautiful short stories I’ve ever read. If the book has a flaw, it’s that there’s relatively little variation among the stories. Except for “Going Ashore,” the book’s final entry, each piece is a quiet domestic drama about Bengalis and westerners. More than one story features a prominent character with a drinking problem, and many of them depict parents grappling with the difficulties of raising children. It would have been nice if Lahiri had expanded beyond this relatively small focus. But what she lacks in variety, she more than makes up for with the depth of her insights and her sympathy for her characters. Unaccustomed Earth is a generous work of fiction and by far the best story collection I’ve read this year.
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