Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

26. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri, whose second novel, The Lowland, will be released on September 24, received the Pulitzer Prize for this debut collection of short stories.

Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's stories is like slipping into an old nightgown or scooping up a bowl of your favorite cultural dish. The majority of her stories follow the intimate lives of Bengali families and take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The feeling that her stories produce in me may be somewhat unique, since one of my best friends is Bengali and I spent my college years in Boston. But no matter how foreign the trappings, I find it hard to believe that the thoughts and feelings of her characters would not elicit a sense of familiarity from any human being. The character details are almost painfully thrilling in the accuracy with which she depicts the quiet confusion of her protagonists' lives.

Yet, every time I read a Jhumpa Lahiri story, I settle into it with such feelings of comfort, joy, and sympathy, and then often find myself jerked abruptly out of the characters' lives at the end, with no sense of where they will go from here. Lahiri mimics life so accurately at times that the arc of the story seems swept under a rug, understandably abandoned, like the Christian relics left behind in her story, "The Blessed House." The reader shares in Twinkle's joy as she discovers these "treasures," left around her new home, but worries about her husband Sanjeev's strong annoyance with them. In the end, it's unclear what will happen to the objects, much less Twinkle and Sanjeev's marriage. And yet, Lahiri can be forgiven for details like this, when Sanjeev observes Twinkle's abandoned shoes, "black patent-leather mules with heels like golf tees, open toes, and slightly soiled silk labels where her soles had rested."

The titular story is not even the most interesting, it focuses on an Indian tour guide who also works as an interpreter for a physician. The central conceit does not mesh well with the storyline, and will leave the reader confused and feeling vaguely superior. The best two stories in the collection are the two with the most definitive story arcs: "A Temporary Matter" and "Sexy." The former concerns the dissolution of a marriage and the latter of an affair. "Sexy" features the only adult non-Bengali protagonist, the other non-Bengali protagonist is a small boy with a Bengali caretaker in "Mrs. Sen's." "A Temporary Matter" is the first and most touching story of the entire collection. "Sexy" teaches the most interesting lesson, wrapped up in one short quote from a Bengali child. While I won't ruin that for you, I'll leave you with a quote from an earlier scene; "Miranda went to Filene's Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have...she found a cocktail dress of a slinky silvery material that matched her eyes" [Moment of Silence for Filene's Basement].

Short stories, I feel, are beginning to be more popular again, though still under the thumb of the novel. I've found them to be a great way to enjoy reading these days, as well as experience new and familiar authors. I've now read all of Lahiri's currently published oeuvre, and I'm looking forward to The Lowland, I hope I can expect the same level of character detail and intimacy with perhaps a less understated plot. And yet, there's room in this world for all kinds of writers and readers and if Lahiri sticks to the style that has done well for her, there would still be a variety of literatures in which to indulge.

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