Jhumpa Lahiri tends her garden
By ED SIEGEL  |  April 22, 2008

UNIVERSAL: Lahiri’s transplanted Bengalis dramatize the tumult of a post-boomer world.

Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize with her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Her follow-up novel, The Namesake, earned her even more fame, particularly after last year’s movie. But if you thought this was all multi-culti fever, Lahiri is out with an even better collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. And its place atop the New York Times hardcover-fiction list bespeaks more than a cult of readers.

Whereas some writers get weighed down by being the hot young thing, Lahiri’s early success seems to have left her knowing she has nothing to prove. As before, her transplanted characters share her Bengali lineage, but here they breathe easier, with a more assimilated air. Her younger characters do battle with arranged marriages, tradition-bound parents, and other holdovers from the old country — India — but they break free rather easily from any attempts to pigeonhole them. The title, in fact, comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Custom-House, in which he warns, “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted . . . in the same worn-out soil. My children . . . shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

That can result in a kind of devastating rootlessness, as Lahiri shows in ways both subtle and powerful. But then, why should her characters be any different from the rest of the post-boomer world, in which religious, political, and other institutions have no particular sway?

They’re not, and so they go about their lives in ways that seem universal and inevitable. And not just the younger generations. In the title story, the thoroughly assimilated 38-year-old Ruma worries about how her father is making out in the wake of widowhood. He, meanwhile, is afraid to tell her that in the European travels he’s undertaken since his wife died he’s fallen in love with another woman. Older parents upsetting their children’s expectations is a familiar theme in our 70-is-the-new-20 times, but Lahiri strikes chords that are beyond most writers. And like short-story master Alice Munro, she curls around her themes in layers rather than striking them directly, and her work is more memorable for how her characters react to situations than for the situations themselves. In the end this makes for pathos rather than sentimentality.

In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a couple goes to a wedding in the Berkshires, where the husband went to boarding school, and just as their marriage seems about to break up, something happens that brings a smile to the reader’s face as well as the couple’s. By itself it would be a clever plot twist, but the kick comes from the confession that leads up to it.

The title story takes place mostly in Seattle, but Lahiri’s characters more typically hail from the Boston area. (She has two MAs and a PhD from Boston University, though Brooklyn is now her home.) It hardly matters; the sense of place is less important than the characters’ psychological relationship to their geography.

Unaccustomed Earth ends with “Hema and Kaushik,” three interrelated stories of two young Bengalis circling each other from adolescence in Cambridge to post-PhD coitus in Rome. As in The Namesake, Lahiri has a tendency to get melodramatic as the story gets longer. It’s a minor quibble here, though, as she uses that melodrama to encapsulate the 331 pages. It may be desirable to search for unaccustomed earth, but nothing blooms if you don’t plant your garden somewhere.

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