Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publishing Info: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Note: When I started, I intended to write a relatively straightforward review of this book, but then I got into a bit of a detour about my thoughts on short stories in general. So I ended up dividing this review into two parts.
Part 1. A Word About Short Stories
I’m not a huge fan of short stories. I find them to be similar to Chinese food—they seem OK at first but, at the end, you find yourself still hungry. (OK … this analogy is pretty lame and it is obvious that I’ve never eaten good Chinese food but it worked when I thought of it in the shower.) In other words, if the story is good, I find myself wanting more at the end—I get miffed the author didn’t choose to make the story into a full novel. I hate just getting a glimpse into someone’s life and then having the door slammed shut on me. I think it is hard to write a good, satisfying short story that feels “complete” to the reader—rather than just a tantalizing glimpse into a world you wished you could stay in.
Perhaps the only good short story writer I’ve found in the past was Dorothy Parker. Her stories feel finished and complete to me. They create a little world within the story that feels satisfying and fulfilling—I don’t feel empty afterwards. (Yes…I’m still belaboring my Chinese food analogy.) “Big Blonde” was one of my all-time favorite Parker stories. For me, that story was the epitome of what a good short story should be. Many of her other stories are more comedic vignettes—perfect little glimpses inside a character’s mind. Reading them are like eating a box of candy! (Another food analogy. Score!)
I’ve tried several short story collections that left me frustrated and put me off of short story collections. Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners was one such example. The writing was good, the premises were intriguing, but I left most of the stories wishing she’d spent the time to flesh out her concepts. The stories seemed like scribblings for book ideas that had never been finished. In the end, I ended up feeling disappointed and empty.
Personal Note to Kelly Link: Please take some of your stories and flesh them out into full-length books!
Another collection of short stories that didn’t do it for me was Personal Velocity by Rebecca Miller. These were seven stories about seven different women and every single one left me cold. I didn’t feel invested in the characters at all, and I could have cared less about what happened to them or “what came next.”
I also think you have to separate collections of short stories by different writers from collections by the same author. I remember devouring books of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” when I was a girl and scaring myself silly. (There was one story about playing a Halloween game with “witch parts” that haunts me to this day.) And I enjoy reading collections of “The Best Horror Short Stories” or “The Best Sci-Fi Short Stories.” I don’t consider these a true book of short stories as they are really just collections of stories that have been cherry-picked to get the best selection for the reader.
And I think that horror and science-fiction short stories are in a class by themselves. Stephen King and Ray Bradbury both have collections of short stories that have thrilled me, chilled me and taken me to new places. However, short stories in these genres are more about the concept and the premise—not so much the characterization. Sure, you need to be a good writer to pull them off, but I’m much more forgiving. I have different expectations for short stories in this genre.
So, with all that being said, when I got to the task of the Mini Challenge that read:
Read a collection of short stories and either blog about it, OR tell the group about what you read.
I thought: “Oh yuck. A collection of short stories.” But because I decided to commit myself to finishing this challenge, I decided to forge ahead. Scanning the books on my bookshelf, I came across Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I don’t know why I had gotten this book in the first place; I think I requested it from Paperback Swap because I kept coming across the author’s name quite a few times and never read anything by her. (She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies.) The book jacket for Unaccustomed Earth read:
These eight stories by beloved and bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand, as they explore the secrets of family life. Unaccustomed Earth subtly renders the most intricate workings of the heart and mind.
The front of the book also had a little gold sticker saying “A New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year.” I thought to myself: “All right. This will have to do.” Begrudgingly and prepared to hate it, I opened the book.
Part 2: Review of Unaccustomed Earth
When I finished the first story in this collection, I knew I was in the hands of a master short story writer. In just 55 or so pages, Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of Ruma’s father visiting her new home in Seattle for the first time. But in the course of those 55 pages, I felt like I received a fully realized view into Ruma and her father’s past, present and future. I was stunned how Jhumpa Lahiri was able to fit so much into the story—Ruma’s relationship with her mother and her grief for her unexpected death, the state of Ruma’s marriage to her husband Adam, her father’s new relationship with a woman, the family’s dynamics growing up, the loneliness of being a mother in a strange new city. Yet the story never felt rushed, forced or jumbled; it unfolds naturally and eloquently. Each little detail is presented when it should be and gives you another piece to Ruma and her father. At the end, each little piece becomes part of a fully-formed mosaic—complete, colorful, shining and whole.
And Jhumpa Lahiri’s skill continued with the rest of the stories. Each one had the same sense of wholeness and completeness to it. At the end of each story, I felt full and satisfied—never wanting more, never needing more. Each story was a perfect fully formed pearl.
The book itself is divided into two parts. Part One has five separate “stand alone” stories. Part Two, which is called “Hema and Kaushik,” has three stories—one for Hema, one for Kaushik, and one that brings them together.
Although each story has its own feel and characters, Lahiri returns to and touches on similar themes in each story that tie the collection together as a whole. The experience of being an immigrant and coming from India to America is a common thread (specifically, a Bengali Indian). Marriage—arranged marriages vs. “chosen” marriages—is a theme that runs throughout each story. The “Americanization” of Indian children and parents is yet another recurring thread. In addition, Lahiri uses Cambridge, Massachusetts as the setting for several of the stories.
Yet even though you might accurately call this collection “an examination of the Indian immigrant experience,” the truths and emotions of these characters are universal. I felt connected to each of Lahiri’s characters. I recognized facets of my life in their lives. I heard my thoughts in their thoughts. I saw myself reflected in them. Although our culture, upbringing, location and families might be different, Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters spoke to me and it rang true.
The story that most affected me was the third Hema and Kaushik story, “Going Ashore.” This was a masterful piece of storytelling, and the ending just wrenched my heart out. The very last sentence of the story is so simple and stark yet reading it brought tears to my eyes, and I felt my heart ache a little bit.
If you have prejudices against short stories like I did, do yourself a favor and read Unaccustomed Earth. To me, these stories are perfect examples of what you can do with the short story form. I know that they will be the standard by which I judge all other short story collections in the future—and the bar has been set exceedingly high.
I got my copy from Paperback Swap.