Click here to read reviewer Sandie Kirkland's take on Unaccustomed Earth.
In a departure from her earlier collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri sets these eight short stories essentially in the United States. The protagonists are second-generation middle-class Bengali expatriates, born and brought up in a culture that, while different fromir parentsí, allows them to embrace the typical youthful angsts of love, friendship, responsibility, and disappointment. Lahiri quotes a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorneís The Custom House in the epigraph that succinctly sums ups the bookís thesis and gives it its title.
In the title story that opens the book, Ruma views with concern and a certain amount of trepidation a visit from her widowed father. Her fatherís visit is a possible precursor to a more long-term living arrangement. Ruma, who was close to her mother but not her father, is unaware that her father has plans of his own, including a romance with a Bengali widow. In a low-key narrative bereft of significant twists and turns, father and daughter avoid the key topic during the brief stay, and it is only after her fatherís departure that Ruma finds his letter to his lover.
A brotherís alcoholism seen through the guilt-ridden eyes of his sister who may be responsible for his condition, a young college student jilted by her married lover, a family friend whose marriage to an American has startling repercussions on the narratorís mother, and a young coupleís trip to attend a friendís wedding - all point to Lahiriís mastery of the narrative that hold its own in spite of not being buoyed by sudden unexpected detours. Her prose is simple enough to be unobtrusive, and this allows the reader to focus on the characters and the narrative.
The second part of the book features a set of three intertwined stories. Hema and Kaushik meet as children in Massachusetts, only to ignore each other as their paths diverge. Kaushik finds himself hating his stepmother, Chitra, because her presence in his fatherís life obliterates memories of his mother. This he recounts in a taut narrative that blends youthful indifference with the pathos that accompanies a singular loss. In the final story, Hema and Kaushik meet as adults in Rome when their life takes an unexpected turn.
The collection captures the lives of young people caught in the eddies of parental expectations and personal desires while their parents try to come to grips with an alien culture. Lahiri writes with a confident touch and has a palpable grip on the characters, and the pacing that results is an enjoyable, albeit melodramatic, collection of stories.