Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Book Review Tuesday: Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth


I had the good fortune to come across this book at a garage sale when we first moved to Silicon Valley. About a dollar for a book? Man, you can't get any better than that! This book is a collection of short stories by Lahiri, and most of them focus on some aspects of first generation Bengali-American families. The book is divided into two parts, a collection of 4 short stories in the beginning, and then a collection of a few chapters that tell the story of two people, Hema and Kaushik. I found this book to be absolutely fascinating, from beginning to end. Each story is about 50 pages, give or take, so it's short enough that you can get through a story in an evening if you choose. While the stories focus on unique challenges faced by first generation immigrants to the US (how to reconcile your home culture with that of American culture, how to deal with different traditions, how to find your spot in this new, uncharted territory), they also focus on basic human relationships, and the things that happen on a day-to-day basis. There's the woman who is dealing with the death of her mother, the birth of a new child and a cross-country move from Brooklyn to Washington. She's also trying to connect, or establish, some kind of a relationship with her father. There's the woman dealing with being the perfect daughter, and the alcoholism of her brother. There's the long married couple who goes away without their children for the first time in a long time, and who fail to connect (or reconnect). There's the roommate who loves his roommate from afar, and then learns something that could change her life dramatically. And then, there's the story of Hema and Kaushik, the final several chapters that close the book. This story gives snapshots of the lives of Hema and Kaushik who meet at a very young age because both their families are part of the Bengali community in Boston. The chapters follow the two characters through their lives, and their eventual reunion, all the while touching on the tragedies associated with life itself. There's cancer and remarriage, love and love lost, travel and intrigue, success and defeat.
Lahiri has an amazing ability to develop characters that are so real, you think you know them in real life, and you absolutely find pieces of them in you. The characters are involved in the mundane ways of their life, yet the stories are fascinating, intriguing, and you are left wanting to know more about the characters long after the story ends. This book is not a feel good book. It's a book about life and how different people deal with it. About how fragile our existence is; how death and tragedy touch us all. Yet it's somehow uplifting, if only in the calm reassurance that, no, life and relationships are not easy. And to appreciate the little victories that come to us every day.

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