The reviews have been coming in for a week or so for Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of stories, "Unaccustomed Earth," and so far they're very positive, at times rapturous. This is Lahiri's 3rd book, following her novel "The Namesake" and before that, her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection "Interpreter of Maladies."
Two of the most important reviews - those in The New York Times - have both come out in the last few days, which is unusual given that The Times can sometimes take months to get to a book. Here's what Michiko Kakutani said in her review (which was rather unfortunately titled "Wonder Bread and Curry: Mingling Cultures, Conflicted Hearts"):
As she did in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories “Interpreter of Maladies” (1999) and her dazzling 2003 novel “The Namesake,” Ms. Lahiri writes about these people in “Unaccustomed Earth” with an intimate knowledge of their conflicted hearts, using her lapidary eye for detail to conjure their daily lives with extraordinary precision: the faint taste of coconut in the Nice cookies that a man associates with his dead wife; the Wonder Bread sandwiches, tinted green with curry, that a Bengali mother makes for her embarrassed daughter to take to school. A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories: a reminder of Ms. Lahiri’s appreciation of the wages of time and mortality and her understanding too of the missed connections that plague her husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends.
Regarding the three stories that make up the section "Hema and Kaushik," Kakutani has this to say:
In the hands of a less talented writer it’s an ending that might have seemed melodramatic or contrived, but as rendered by Ms. Lahiri it possesses the elegiac and haunting power of tragedy — a testament to her emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer.
In this weekend's NYT Book Review, Liesl Schillinger calls the collection "sensitive":
Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration. Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.
According to the Amazon page for the book, Publishers Weekly was blown away:
Starred Review. The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals.
One of the few reviews I could find that isn't quite so soaring comes from Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly, who gave it a B-plus:
Would Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction still work if the Rahuls and Chitras were Roberts and Charlottes? If the mango-lime pickle on the refrigerator shelf were Best Foods mayonnaise? It's an interesting experiment to run while reading Lahiri's elegant, unsettling new story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. As in her two previous books, Lahiri writes about the dislocation of upwardly mobile Bengali-Americans. But strip away the exotic trappings and her urban professionals could be any anxious, overachieving Americans adrift from their cultural moorings.
And a reviewer for The Seattle Times didn't think it quite lived up to the first collection:
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.
More from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Her novel, "The Namesake," was a best-seller. In this, her third book, the eight stories are longer than those in her previous collection but just as absorbing and as beautifully written. The stories are set in various locales, from Seattle and Cambridge to India and Thailand, but all concern Bengalis struggling to adapt to new homelands and ways of life.
Lahiri has a worldwide audience. "The Namesake" was made into a movie, but no film, I fear, can fully capture her wonderful prose and masterful delineation of character. I have so far refrained from seeing the movie. I'd rather live with her books, and this third one fulfills every expectation of her mastery of the prose medium. I've grown accustomed to her style, to paraphrase Dr. Henry Higgins, and "Unaccustomed Earth" is in that customary style at its very best.
Lahiri, who was raised and educated in the United States and whose parents are Bengali, is adept at showing us these cultural and generational conflicts. The stories she generates from these clashes appear true to life, and while a few lack nuance and at times feel familiar, they are never predictable. Lahiri is far too accomplished and empathic a writer to relax her gaze; she excels at uncovering character and choosing detail.
Although Lahiri has cited Marquez and William Trevor as influences, these stories are more akin to those of a young Alice Munro. In "Unaccustomed Earth," Ruma's grief at losing her mother becomes tangled up in whether she should invite her father to live with her, not realizing that "he did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it." And for her, the revelation, in part, will be that "even though he was still alive, there was no longer anyone to care for her." Ruma's palpable sadness is a feeling that carries through to "Only Goodness," in which Sudha weathers the realities of her brother Rahul's alcoholism as it tears up her childhood family. When Sudha's son is born, her parents have a second chance, "their tiny grandson plugging up the monstrous hole Rahul left behind in his wake." In both stories, new life brings hope to broken families, and mothers awash in tears must carry on when the baby cries. Lahiri's not an original stylist—no mysterious Hawthornian symbolism or Marquezian flights of fancy—but she captures these moments with clarity and grace, a tangible knowledge of how souls twist in the wind.
This new collection, like Lahiri's other works, delves deeply and richly into the lives of immigrants. They are uprooted adventurers from India who arrive in America ready to work hard and become assimilated. They cling to beloved cultural traditions but heartily embrace the Western world's wondrous opportunities for happiness and success.
Immigrants may be the stories' protagonists, but their doubts, insecurities, losses and heartbreaks belong to all of us. Never before has Lahiri mined so perfectly the secrets of the human heart. <snip>
In part, Lahiri's gift to the reader is gorgeous prose that bestows greatness on life's mundane events and activities. But it is her exploration of lost love and lost loved ones that gives her stories an emotional exactitude few writers could ever hope to match.
Describing the bond between a mother and her son, a character in an earlier story says, "He is made from your meat and bone." Kaushik's grief is that raw, that elemental. Elsewhere in the collection, Lahiri is sparing in her use of metaphor, of imagery, but not here. Kaushik's nine-day road trip to the Canadian border and back, along a frigid and desolate coastline, resounds with loss. It's a howl from the heart of a writer working at the height of her powers.