Unaccustomed Earth – Week in Books #31b

I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake so much that I was eager to read her other books.  While her latest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is also beautifully written, I have to say I didn’t enjoy them as much. 

I love Lahiri’s theme of people caught between cultures, not really belonging anywhere.  The title is taken from a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote:

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

I suppose this idea resonates so deeply with me since I also spent my childhood (and now my adulthood, come to think of it) living in places where I was not from.  Being not from anywhere has its advantages in breadth of experience and flexibility, but also it’s drawbacks.  I’ve always sort of envied people who were from someplace or had some obvious identity.  The stories in Unaccustomed Earth deal with the push and pull of identities and generations, but unlike the way Lahiri dealt with those themes in The Namesake, in Unaccustomed Earth she never really develops them fully.

The first stories in the book disappointed me because I enjoyed Lahiri’s gorgeous style but felt like she didn’t develop some of her characters and images as strongly as she’s capable of doing.  Several of the components were so strong that they should have leapt out of the book with tension and feeling, but I felt like Lahiri dropped them in passing instead. 

By contrast, the last section of the book is a novella that I found much more engaging and well done, and I really wish she had just taken that piece and made a novel out of it.  If you pick up this book and don’t have a lot of time on your hands I think you could skip part one entirely and just read part two about Hema and Kaushik. 

But really, if you don’t have much time but still want to get a taste of what a fabulous writer Lahiri is, you should read The Namesake instead. 

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