Jhumpa Lahiri’s first published short story collection and it wins the Pulitzer? Intimidation. That is all I was feeling before reading this book. I was intimidated, but intrigued, and not at all let down by this book.
Lahiri’s writing is clean and precise—I’m not sure how else to put it. The stories are written very well, with depth and just enough details. She doesn’t do anything new or exciting with language is what I’m trying to say I guess. But this collection is amazing regardless.
The most notable aspect about this collection is that all of the stories are about Indians and Indian Americans. In each story, Lahiri presents us with a look at very different and interesting Indian experiences. From India, to England, to America, each of the stories are rich and varied, and therefore, the characters are all interesting and unique from one another.
For example, in the story “Mrs. Sen’s,” the main character is an older woman married to a professor, living on the east coat in a university town. She spends her time preparing traditional Indian meals and taking care of a young boy while his mother is at work. Her experiences are very different than that of Boori Ma in “The Real Durwan,” the stair-sweeper who gets to live in the building’s entrance only because she keeps it clean for the other tenants. She is valued more for her skill than for her actual existance as a human being. Both are older Indian women, but have vastly different stories. It is this kind of diversity in the stories that makes this collection so great.
Although the stories and characters are all different from one another, they are not so varied that there is no cohesiveness; on the contrary, Lahiri beautifully seams the characters’ experiences together. From one story to the next, you get a good sense of both the collective and individual lives of characters inside and outside of the Indian diaspora. Family, loyalty, representation, identity and immigration are just a few of the themes present in these stories.
The last story in this collection, “The Third and Final Continent” stuck out to me the most. A man from India takes a job at in library at MIT after living in India and then London. He has married a woman his parents have chosen for him, but while her waits for her to join her in Cambridge, he rents a room from an elderly woman. His life during this time is routine, especially since the woman is used to doing the same thing day after day, since she can’t do much else. Although they do not talk much, the man takes to caring for the woman.
During all this time, the man learns to adjust to American customs, food and weather, among other things. When his wife arrives at the house, he’s not completely sure what he has gotten himself into. They are both quiet, not used to being around each other. it’s a bit strange to see how the man knows the elderly woman more than his own wife, but they eventually have to move out and live alone together. The elderly woman plays an important part in them getting to know each other, as she is one of the reasons the man first hears his wife laugh. At the end of the story, the man drives by the house years later with his wife on their way to visit their son, and they both recall points to the their first “home” in America, where many of their first memories took place.
I think this story was the best last story in a short story collection I’ve ever read. It beautifully encapsulates the themes of the whole book with warmth and positivity. Even though many of the characters in the stories suffer a great deal of pain and loss moving away from India or staying behind in India, the last story shows the promise of the sacrifices one makes when they move to another country.
I’m giving this one four out of five stars!