Sonal's Reviews > Unaccustomed Earth

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
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Dec 04, 2013

liked it

As I progressed through the first four stories, I became more and more angry. I couldn't understand why Lahiri would put out another book that was almost identical to to her first. She seemed to have retreated even further into her "safe space", writing only about Bengali Americans who study at ivy league schools, have well educated albeit maladjusted parents and struggle with redefining relationships after relocation. I expected a lot more when I read the title and its reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's quote. I expected she'd do justice to the idea, but nope! The themes are repetitive and hackneyed, the female characters are extremely weak (which bothered my feminist sentimentality no end) and alcohol abuse seems to have become her chosen metaphor for all inner turmoil. In fact, she doesn't even do justice to the same "hackneyed themes" - she addresses relationships (father-daughter, brother-sister etc) but doesn't address any of the other usual suspects when it comes to immigrant struggles - race, sexuality, discrimination, social-cultural identity ... etc. On the other hand, the writing was fluid and at some points, I found her flair for tragedy quite impressive. She does address some of the darker aspects of loneliness, human awkwardness and tragedy especially delicately and manages to bring across her idea without unnecessarily complicating and cluttering her writing.
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Reading Progress

02/06 marked as: read

Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-15 of 15) </span> <span class="smallText">(15 new)</span>

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Lisa I have to say that although she certainly doesn't go through a lot of new territory--she is amazing in the short form. She reminds me of Alice Munro (who I love) in this way--you aren't usually going to come across new settings or character types but these things, in my opinion are just the colors she tries to paint with--not the picture. In the end, the stories don't read like further insight into the ivy-educated Bengali-American, but her writing about disappointment, love, excitement, pain, success and pressure using the palette she knows how to work with best.

All that said, I hear you.

Sharon Joag Amazingly, I never drew on the similarity of "The Namesake" with "Unaccustomed Earth", until Sonal Mentioned it. But, Sonal, you are absolutely correct in that regard.
However, I do like her descriptive writing and how she captures the characters in their form so completely. I being an Indian, brought up in the United States can almost picture myself as many of her characters, and I believe this is what she is trying to draw on.
I agree that in her future work, she should delve into more creative aspects of the immigrant struggle.

Marisa I completely agree with your review - I looked forward to this book very much and was ultimately VERY disappointed.

Kaion I haven't read The Namesake or Interpreter of Maladies, but I totally agree with the repetitious and tiresome nature of the stories.

Cricket I agree with you whole-heartedly. I found this book a tired copy of Interpreter of Maladies.

Mary Anne I agree with Lisa’s comment (minus the last sentence). While it’s true that these stories are often about Bengalis adjusting to American life, it’s also true that it is a group and a circumstance that the author knows well so it makes sense she would lean towards that demograhpic. That’s pretty common for many great authors, look at Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, Alice Walker. When writing about people with similar backgrounds it makes sense that similar issues might come up.
However, just because an author has a similar setting and characters with similar roots it does not follow that the stories are not each unique, nor does it follow that they are uniquely Bengali issues. I didn’t feel like these were a tired copy of anything else she’d written, and I’ve read both the Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies. I feel that each of her stories have a flavor of its very own and are real enough that people from many walks of life can identify with the characters.
For instance, in the Namesake, Gogol struggles to find his own way and literally make a name for himself, but as he grows up and matures he discovers that being like his parents isn’t entirely bad, that you can be you and still take after your parents to an extent and that’s ok. I’m not Bengali and my father wasn’t a Professor in Boston. I’m a white girl from rural Indiana, but this struggle of deciding what to be of myself and what to take away from my roots is something that I could really identify with and I think most people could.
In the title story Unaccustomed Earth I could relate to the daughter that understood her mother so much better after having kids and then losing her, losing the house you grew up in and starting a new life far away and wondering how your father relates to the world now that he no longer has your mother. Again, I’m not the daughter of Bengali immigrant, but this story was still hit very close to home for me.
The last story wasn’t one I could personally relate to as much and I found it immensely depressing, but I loved the writing style of this story and could still empathize with the characters.
I think it’s natural to focus more on family relationships than big things like race etc. On a day to day basis families effect who we are and how we can deal with things much more than the world outside out families. Next to families would be the culture shock of a new place, and I think she does a good job of including that aspect.

Mary Anne I didn’t feel alcohol had much to do with anything besides the one story, about the alcoholic brother. There are some other references made to drinking as a negative thing but to say that it’s a blanket code for all inner turmoil is a huge overstatement.
As for weak women, I completely disagree. Just because the women in these stories have struggles doesn’t mean they are weak (although I tend to agree with you about Paul’s roommate with the horrible boyfriend). There are weak girls out there, and who says that you can only write about strong women, as if they are the only ones that matter. Looking at these women, each was dealing with a circumstance that was new to them and they weren’t sure how to deal with it. How does a ‘strong’ woman deal with situations like an alcoholic brother, or a dead mother, or cheating boyfriend, or a woman with breast cancer living in your house? I think it’s valuable to tell the stories of everyday situations and everyday people and how they cope. We can learn from it.
I have the hardest time with the last story although the writing style for that one is my favorite. I hate that she doesn’t go with him, but of course you could view it as a strength in a different way, that she wasn’t going to give up the life she’d worked for just for a man. Sad but strong.
I think you could make a stronger case for weak men in these stories, but again, why bother? I feel their weaknesses are part of what makes these characters very realistic. I tend to hope for the best from people but I cannot deny that sometimes people are weak. I think it’s valuable to read stories about people who struggle and aren’t sure how to deal with every situation they find themselves in.
I thought this book was so sad in many cases, but so beautiful, and not at all indentical to her other works.

message 8: by Madah J (new) - added it

Madah J I wholeheartedly agree with Sonal's review. Although her style is entrancing enough to have pick them book up again and again, it felt more like a chore. While Jhumpa Lahiri has a beautiful flow in her writing, her plots are tiresome and mundane. I had to finish the stories because I began them.

message 9: by Bhole (new)

Bhole She goes on and on and on on the same topic!

Rhoda Baxter I can't decide how I feel about this book. As you say, the same material in the background. I liked the Hema and Kaushik one, which actually had a decent story in it. The rest were pretty 'meh'. Shame, really, as when I read The Interpreter of Maladies, I was completely blown away by the style and content.

Kunal But....every author does that...they all have their strengths and they play to i personally like the way she deals with her characters differently...i think it uncovers a lot about people who grow up far away from their own culture....that's her umbrella topic..and she handles it well I feel.

message 12: by Jin (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jin Zhao Yup. I finished the first 2 stories and have the same feeling about them as you do. The first one, the title story of this collection, is especially disappointing. It's slow and rigid -- it's boring. I know meticulous description is her style, which I appreciate, but some of the detailed descriptions in this story don't seem to serve any purpose but slow down the pace of the story. In this sense, I like the second story much better. In terms of themes, they're like repackaging of her earlier works. I'll keep reading though. I hope my impression will change.

Joshua Thank you! I've been listening to this in the car for the last couple weeks and blah, has it gotten old. Made up sample sentence... She could never fully understand her mother's connection to Calcutta, even though that had visited there every year when she was a child. Rather than read (or listen to) this book, just take in that sentiment.

message 14: by Antonio (new) - added it

Antonio D'Cruz good review indeed....

Śrī A great review! I was trying to get at the same sentiments when I wrote my review, but you've done a far better job of capturing it.

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