Lahiri treads familiar waters "Unaccustomed Earth"
Divided into two sections, "Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri takes its title from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom House." An epigraph espouses the need for successive generations to "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."
Special to The Seattle Times
Jhumpa LahiriThe author will read from "Unaccustomed Earth"
at 7 p.m. April 14 in the Microsoft Auditorium
of the main branch of the Seattle Public Library.
Free (206-386-4636; www.spl.org).
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, 331 pp., $25
Jhumpa Lahiri perfected the short-story form in her 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection, "The Interpreter of Maladies." That remarkable group of narratives explored her key theme of expatriate Bengali parents dealing with children who have adapted to American ways. She continued in a similar vein with her novel "The Namesake." The eight adept stories in "Unaccustomed Earth" carry on in the same tradition.
Divided into two sections, the book takes its title from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom House." An epigraph espouses the need for successive generations to "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."
No where is this clearer than in the title story, which opens Part 1. Thirty-eight-year-old Ruma faces a series of challenges when she moves from Brooklyn's Park Slope to the Seattle area's Eastside. Despite a picture-window view of Lake Washington and the "snowy peaks" of the Olympics, a definitive unhappiness permeates Ruma's supposedly charmed life.
Newly pregnant with a second child, Ruma hosts her 70-year-old widower father (visiting for a week from Pennsylvania). She wonders if she has an obligation to invite him to move in with her family, a husband who is rarely home and a 3-year-old son. Unbeknownst to Ruma, her father harbors a secret about his current lifestyle.
Four more stories in Part 1 introduce other disconsolate characters. "Hell-Heaven," set in the Boston/Cambridge area, focuses on a Bengali graduate student who, befriended by the narrator's family, triggers what could be a life-altering event for everyone concerned. In "A Choice of Accommodations," a couple confronts the renewal of their commitments when they return to a boarding school for a friend's wedding. A sister and an alcoholic brother move to the edge of tragedy in "Only Goodness." A student studying for his doctoral exams gets uncomfortably involved in a romantic triangle in "Nobody's Business."
Part 2 of the collection contains three linked stories: "Once In A Lifetime," "Year's End" and "Going Ashore" follow the lives of Hema and Kaushuk, friends from childhood. Their paths cross in fatefully dark ways. In 1974, 6-year-old Hema's crush on 9-year-old Kaushuk is disrupted when his family moves to India. When Kaushuk's family returns seven years later, adolescent Hema is still deeply attracted to the older teenager. In the closing story, the couple unexpectedly reunite in Rome. Hema is a successful academic; Kaushuk, an internationally known photojournalist. Their fates ultimately become overshadowed by a natural catastrophe they could not foresee.
Though "Unaccustomed Earth" is not as stunning as "The Interpreter of Maladies" (some stories are overlong; others dwell on obvious thematic conflicts), it's always hard to improve on perfection.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.