Unaccustomed Earth

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Yup, two reviews in one day. It's hard for me to blog during the week, so Sunday is my blogging catch-up day.

I LOVE Indian culture. I love the food (you should probably go get some takeout samosas right now and then finish reading), I love the movies (and then go rent Lagaan) and I LOVE the books. My grandma gave me Jhumpa Lahiri's first two books, Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, after discovering this fact, and I loved them both, so I was excited to find Jhumpa's (pronunced "joompa") third book waiting for me on the library shelf.

Unaccustomed Earth is a book of eight short stories. Five of them are unconnected, and the last three involve the same two characters. The title comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House:" (Read "The Custom House" here. I am going to once I finish writing this post - I can't remember what it was about - 11th grade seems like a long time ago).

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generation, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and so far as their fortunes may be in my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

This book (and honestly, Lahiri's other two books) are about the lives of immigrants from India to the United States - their experiences in "unaccustomed earth." They must learn to adjust, for better or for worse, to their new surroundings, and those adjustments are always rocky.

Lahiri's stories are not just about immigrants, however - they are about laying bare the unanticipated moments that manage to change the course of the rest of your life. Lahiri manages to catch the precise moments when things start to fall apart, particularly in relationships - "She clipped the ribbon with scissors and stuffed the whole thing into the garbage, surprised at how easily it fit, thinking of the husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other" (173).

That is the end of one of the stories, by the way - cheerful, isn't it? Sometimes Lahiri is too sad and too real - some of the stories stopped at places so tragic it made me feel like I was watching a frightening scene, even though nothing truly horrifying was occurring, just the mistakes that are possible in our lives. She takes small moments and magnifies them for all their potential ramifications, which isn't always uplifting.

However, part of Jhumpa's skill is that even though sometimes I didn't like her story, I couldn't stop reading until I finished, even skipping ahead to skim random pages and scattered sentences and then going back to finish the story anyway. Her stories are compelling and believable. There is a reason this lady won the Pulitzer. Her characters are flawed but endearing. (My favorite part is when a man is told not to color his rapidly graying hair - "it was distinguished, women would be drawn do it. He hadn't believed her but she was right; every woman he'd ever been involved with had confessed, at one point or another, that they found his gray hair sexy" (101). As the wife of a twenty-something going gray, I couldn't agree more!)

All things considered, this is a good book. Jhumpa Lahiri is a phenomenal writer. I didn't always love it, and sometimes it left me in a somewhat depressed mood, but I am glad I read it and would recommend it with a grain of salt.* 3.5

*I always wondered what that phrase meant, so I looked it up for you in case you were wondering too.


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  2. Thank you! I consider that a great compliment because I love your blog. :)


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