Reviews for Unaccustomed Earth

Booklist Reviews 2008 February #1
*Starred Review* Following her thoughtful first novel, The Namesake (2003), which has been made into a meditative film, Lahiri returns to the short story, the form that earned her the Pulitzer Prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The tight arc of a story is perfect for Lahiri's keen sense of life's abrupt and painful changes, and her avid eye for telling details. This collection's five powerful stories and haunting triptych of tales about the fates of two Bengali families in America map the perplexing hidden forces that pull families asunder and undermine marriages. "Unaccustomed Earth," the title story, dramatizes the divide between immigrant parents and their American-raised children, and is the first of several scathing inquiries into the lack of deep-down understanding and trust in a marriage between a Bengali and non-Bengali. An inspired miniaturist, Lahiri creates a lexicon of loaded images. A hole burned in a dressy skirt suggests vulnerability and the need to accept imperfection. Van Eyck's famous painting, The Arnolfini Marriage, is a template for a tale contrasting marital expectations with the reality of familial relationships. A collapsed balloon is emblematic of failure. A lost bangle is shorthand for disaster. Lahiri's emotionally and culturally astute short stories (ideal for people with limited time for pleasure reading and a hunger for serious literature) are surprising, aesthetically marvelous, and shaped by a sure and provocative sense of inevitability. Copyright 2008 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2008 April
New Lahiri collection explores immigrants' path to assimilation

In her relatively brief career, Jhumpa Lahiri already has carved out a distinctive literary niche. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and author of a critically and commercially successful novel, The Namesake, her tales of Indians encountering contemporary American life have resonated with a wide swath of readers. Her latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, will only burnish that estimable reputation. It's an emotionally astute, character-driven assortment of stories that carry forward and deepen the themes she's explored in her previous works.

Except for some fleeting glimpses, Lahiri has abandoned the Indian settings that formed the backdrop for several stories in Interpreter of Maladies. Most of her characters have settled into a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle in affluent suburbs from Boston to Seattle. Allusions to the symbols of their success, Ivy League colleges and luxury automobiles chief among them, are sprinkled generously throughout these pages. Indeed, but for occasional references to Indian foods like luchis or dal, or a description of one character's closet full of saris, these stories might be those of any upwardly mobile Americans. If there's a unifying theme in Unaccustomed Earth, it's the way these immigrants have assimilated so quickly and effectively into American life.

The collection's title story tells of Ruma, a vaguely dissatisfied housewife who's raising a young son with little assistance from her husband, a hedge fund manager. When her widowed father comes to visit and quickly bonds with the young boy, she wrestles with the decision of whether to invite him to live with her family, discovering only after he departs that he's involved in a relationship with another woman. "A Choice of Accommodations" examines the simmering tensions in the marriage of Amit and Megan, as they return to Amit's New England boarding school to celebrate the wedding of a female friend from his school days. In "Only Goodness," Lahiri writes poignantly of Sudha, a woman trying to rescue her younger brother Rahul from his descent into a life of alcoholism, and her "fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other."

Part Two of Unaccustomed Earth consists of three linked stories, following the lives of Hema and her childhood friend Kaushik over more than 30 years. In "Once in a Lifetime," Kaushik's family comes back to America after several years in India when his mother develops breast cancer. They move into Hema's home, where they spend several awkard months. Five years later, Kaushik's father has entered into an arranged marriage with a woman some 20 years his junior and the mother of two children, and in "Year's End" Kaushik recounts his struggle to accept the new domestic arrangement. Finally, in "Going Ashore," Hema and Kaushik meet by chance in Rome. She's a Latin scholar on sabbatical and he's an accomplished photojournalist. Their encounter kindles an intense love affair, which ends when Kaushik leaves for a magazine position in Hong Kong. The story's climax, at a Thai resort on December 26, 2005, is haunting and almost unbearably sad.

Lahiri's prose style is graceful, elegant, understated. It's awkward to call thesepieces "short stories"the shortest is 24 pagesand, like Alice Munro, Lahiri is adept at handling chronology, ranging backward and forward in time, compressing lifetimes into a single artfully crafted paragraph. Relish this gorgeous collection and contemplate the prospect of the work she'll produce as she reaches her artistic maturity.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2008 February #1
Lahiri (The Namesake, 2003, etc.) extends her mastery of the short-story format in a collection that has a novel's thematic cohesion, narrative momentum and depth of character.The London-born, American-raised author of Indian descent returns with some of her most compelling fiction to date. Each of these eight stories, most on the longish side, a few previously published in magazines, concerns the assimilation of Bengali characters into American society. The parents feel a tension between the culture they've left behind (though to which they frequently return) and the adopted homeland where they always feel at least a little foreign. Their offspring, who are generally the protagonists of these stories, are typically more Americanized, adopting a value system that would scandalize their parents, who are usually oblivious to the college lives their sons and daughters lead. Ambition and accomplishment are givens in these families, where it's understood that nothing less than attending a top-flight school and entering an honored profession (medicine, law, academics) will satisfy. The stunning title story presents something of a role reversal, as a Bengali daughter and her American husband must come to terms with the secrets harbored by her father. The story expresses as much about love, loss and the family ties that stretch across continents and generations through what it doesn't say, and through what is left unaddressed by the characters. Even "Only Goodness," the most heavy-handed piece in the collection, which concerns a character's guilt over her brother's alcoholism, sustains the reader's interest until the last page. The final three stories trace the lives of two characters, Hema and Kaushik, from their teen years through their 30s, when fate (or chance) reunites them. An eye for detail, ear for dialogue and command of family dynamics distinguish this uncommonly rich collection.Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2007 December #1
Eight stories of souls in upheaval, in settings that range from Seattle to Thailand. With an 11-city tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2008 February #1

Four years after the release of her best-selling novel, The Namesake , the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lahiri returns with her highly anticipated second collection of short stories exploring the inevitable tension brought on by family life. The title story, for example, takes on a young mother nervously hosting her widowed father, who is visiting between trips he takes with a lover he has kept secret from his family. What could have easily been a melodramatic soap opera is instead a meticulously crafted piece that accurately depicts the intricacies of the father-daughter relationship. In a departure from her first book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies , Lahiri divides this book into two parts, devoting the second half of the book to "Hema and Kaushik," three stories that together tell the story of a young man and woman who meet as children and, by chance, reunite years later halfway around the world. The author's ability to flesh out completely even minor characters in every story, and especially in this trio of stories, is what will keep readers invested in the work until its heartbreaking conclusion. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/07.]--Sybil Kollappallil, Library Journal

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 January #4

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. (Apr.)

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