General ramblings

Review: Unaccustomed Earth

One of the most impressive things about this book is this opening quote that is being flashed all over the internet-

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.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Custom House”

Other than that, I didn’t see too many positives. Part I of the book has five stories, out of which Hell-Heaven had already been published in The New Yorker. Part II of the book has three short stories, based on the two characters, Hema and Kaushik. The first story from this part, titled Once in a Lifetime, was originally published in The New Yorker too; Jhumpa Lahiri decided to expand on it and that is how we get the other two stories.

I was expecting quite a bit from this book, considering the fact that it’s a collection of short stories. Having previously liked The Interpreter of Maladies, and having not liked The Namesake that much, I felt that this book might just be the literary piece that can seal the fact that Lahiri is a good writer, at least as far as short stories are concerned. I don’t see that happening though. I understand that writers tend to write about people, places and surroundings that they are familiar with. But there are many others who don’t stick to the familiar path. Lahiri seems to have beaten the topic of elite, Bengali Indian American immigrants to death. I can almost predict what her next character will be like- He/she will be a resident in the Cambridge/Massachusetts area, will only attend MIT/Harvard/Stanford, will marry a girl/boy of his parents’ choice in Kolkata and bring her here, go on to get a PhD and then a nice German car. The second generation will soon follow and the Indian immigrant will try his best to get his child into another Ivy a.ka. Envy League. The kid will be the talk of the town if he fails to get into an MIT/Harvard/Stanford. Oh, and the child will almost always marry a non-Indian and then feel awkward around his parents. Throw in some philandering, some desi eccentricities, garam masala and some memories of India and you have a Lahiri novel!

The only stories that I truly enjoyed were Unaccustomed Earth (from Part I), Once in a Lifetime (Part II- Story One) and Year’s End (Part II- Story Two). So, yes, 3/8 is not that bad.

I don’t want to write about every story in detail because it doesn’t make sense to do so. If you want to read about every short story, then take a look at NY Time’s review, which is quite detailed. Or read the book instead.

If Lahiri wants to write another novel, then I think that she might have to get over her comfort zone and pen down something new, something that we already don’t know about.


15 thoughts on “Review: Unaccustomed Earth

  1. I agree with you — Lahiri is a very talented writer whose inspiration (and every writer should have one) has come to feel predictable. I worry that she has become already pigeonholed (has pigeonholed herself already?), and I hope that she strives in her next work not only to maintain her subtlety and distinctive eye for imagery, but also to break the mold.

  2. yaake says:

    Yeah, her stories are kinda stereotypical and sometimes, plain boring! I actually enjoyed the Namesake… probably coz it was first book of hers that i was reading… then, everything else got kinda repetitive…
    P.S. mine’s the first comment! Yay!! 😀

  3. yaake says:

    Noooooooooo!!!!! by the time I clicked Submit, Romola commented!!! Damn!!!
    I’m gonna go jump in the well, now!! 😦

  4. @ Ruhi: Tragic if the best thing found in a book is made of _someone else’s_ words.

    Sometimes it is good not to write a second book after an accolade. See Arundhati Roy and GOST? Serves her well, does it not? A bit like pretty people dying early – so the public remembers them in an eternally young form – Marilyn, Diana, Heath etc. (For contrast, think Elvis, RIP).

  5. I think the Interpreter of Maladies set a high standard which is troubling Lahiri. Also, good readers (not the ones who buy books for flaunting) tend to be over critical – I assure you this is a complement 🙂 I read an excerpt of the book and felt it was put downable. So instead restarted the Mario Puzo series.

  6. I guess she is not able to match up to her own standards. Interpreter of maladies was a tall order and she is not able to provide a suitable follow up. She failed with Namesake and then this. Sometimes she seems to be the equivalent of Suraj Barjatya in the litrary world. Hum aapke hain kaun was too much for him. He could never move out of the shadow of that movie and do something different. But then come to think of it, it would be a little harsh to say the same for Jhumpa so early. Only time will tell.
    And, how would you rate the book at a scale of 1 to 5?

  7. I know that feeling. When you definitely love the first book of someone and then you notice that somehow all the books he/she writes are the same… It mostly ends in disappointment. (Unless you are equally obsessed with the topic they write about.)

  8. @Shefaly: I agree with you. Most authors who have had brilliant first book produce shoddy latter works. I did not like even Hosseni’s Thousand Splendid Suns as much as his first one. Arundhati Roy is better known for her activism than her any other book.

    @Ruhi: A reda a story from Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book in HT Sunday Brunch. A new way of promoting a book. I liked that one. But I can’t say that I loved Jhumpa’s any work or detested any. I simply liked them. I have out-of-ordinary enthusiasm or admiration for her work. I am sure many will disagree with me on this.

  9. Romola- Thanks for your comment and welcome to my blog. 🙂 She has an eye for detail for sure and I hope she uses it to bring forth nuances and experiences that don’t seem too familiar. I have a feeling that she won’t deviate much from the same environment…I can’t imagine her writing anything different now!

    Yaake- Sorry, Romola beat you to it. 🙂 Now I’m thinking if I enjoyed Interpreter of Maladies just because it was the first Lahiri novel that I was reading? If I read it again, then I might not enjoy it. I didn’t like The Namesake much…quite Bollywood-ish. It felt like a movie script through and through.

    Shefaly- Joseph Heller (Writer of Catch-22) comes to my mind when you say that the writer shouldn’t pen down another book after winning accolades. 🙂 Actually, Roy has written a lot of non-fiction books, which are an interesting read, even though you/me might not really agree with all her political stances. I read an interview that was published in 2007 Reuters and it seems that she is in the process of writing another fiction-based novel. 🙂

    Raman- Thanks for the compliment then. 😛 I’m overly critical for sure. There are many out there who will find it to be a pleasant read, because it’s easy to rummage through and will make an excellent read for a plane ride. Nothing more though.

    Amit- I would rate it 2.5/5 at the max and nothing more. Her stories were not engaging at all. I just knew what was coming! The leading character HAS to be screwed up in some way. Then there will be some memories of India, some more pages about the Cambridge area and then talks about life in the US as a PhD student. How boring! How many stories/novels can you write and talk about the same thing? Freakin’ ridiculous.

    Kalafudra- Yes…that’s how it’s been. I think I’m giving up on her now! 😦

    Poonam- I haven’t read Thousand Splendid Suns, because I feel that Hosseini is not that good. The Kite Runner was certainly very good, but it was a bit too ‘commercial’- if you know what I mean. It did make a pleasant read for my fight journey though. 🙂 And I have to disagree with you on Roy- Her book God of Small Things rose to fame on its own! She didn’t have any Forewards from famous authors…it was simply word of mouth. I love that book and find her lectures to be very enrapturing , even though I might not agree with everything she’s got to say. She has a magnetic pull in her.

    And I actually agree with you on Lahiri- Even I just liked them. Didn’t love it or hate it. But I don’t have any enthusiasm or admiration for her books now…not after reading this one. 😦 I think it’s a tremendous let down.

  10. @ Ruhi: You say ‘non fiction’, I say ‘polemic’ (sung to the tune of Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off) 🙂 I have read some of AR’s essays. They are hard to read because the argument gets lost in emotion and become polemical. May be it is my heightened sensitivity to social policy related writing – since I read social policy stuff for fun and for work, and tend to compare the quality of the argument across a broad range of writing in similar fields – but I find it very hard to read her writings. Good for her if she is writing another work of fiction!

  11. @Ruhi: Missing just one word changed the meaning of what I wrote. I was referring to a author’s second book. I meant to say Roy is more known for her activism than her any later work (that is After God of Small Things). As far as I know, there aren’t any only essays.

    Personally, you might hate me for saying this, I disliked her God of Small Things. I thought it was too much ado about nothing. Some of her narrative made me wonder why it was there at all in the book? But have to give it to her that she has the mastery of the language but I doubt her as a great story-teller.

  12. @ Shefaly:

    Yes, I agree…she gets quite emotional and stuff. But it’s all right for me…I don’t take it seriously! I just read it and then forget it. 🙂


    She has written a lot of political essays and has given some speeches too. They might not be too grounded in reality. But I find them to be entertaining nonetheless. And it’s quite all right if you say that you didn’t really like her style. Not many did. Most of the people I come across don’t like her writing or her views. I, however, continue to be drawn to her! 🙂

  13. I haven’t read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri yet so I wouldn’t exactly be able to comment. But yea, I’ve been planning to read one of her books. It’s either going to be The Namesake or The Interpreter of Maladies. I thought I was gonna read The Namesake earlier but since you seem to think the other one is better, I’ll read that. But before that I need to finish A Thousand Splendid Suns.

    But yea, I can agree with what most people have been saying. Once an author comes up with something brilliant, the expectations rise and it’s difficult to keep coming up with stuff as brilliant every time. It’s happened with everyone. During the initial series of Potter books, everyone loved ’em but slowly as a wider number of people started reading them, they did start disagreeing and not liking it. I guess people make too many expectations. Same happened with a Thousand Splendid Suns I believe. Although I think it’s nice till now, but I can’t deny that it’s all getting a little repetitive.

  14. shiwuz says:

    Jhumpa Lahiri, i like her a lot… did you happen to read ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ by her? another awesome book, not to mention ‘The Namesake’… I will read this one now…

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