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message 1: by Wilhelmina (last edited Jan 09, 2009 06:15PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Our choice for February is Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The discussion will begin on Feb. 1. and will be led by jo. It should be a good discussion!

message 2: by jo (new)


first of all, thanks for letting me "lead" this. haha. i'm not even sure what leading means, but i saw that other people put up brief bios of their authors so i'll do this at some point, too (this is a reminder to self, among other things).

the evocative, mysterious, lovely, and ultimately (when one understands it) brilliant title of this amazing short story collection seems to me to be a bit of authorial naughtiness. here is jhumpa lahiri, famous for talking about second-generation bengali immigrants, slapping a wonderful quote from (of all people) nathaniel hawthorne at the beginning of her book, to the effect that uprooting oneself and moving around allows one to grow and put out fresh shoots.

nathaniel hawthorne was himself, of course, familiar with the theme of uprooting and immigration, having researched and written about first-generation americans who survived abysmal odds to make it to the new continent and whose hardships, once they made it here, were enormous. most importantly, whatever he says in the quote, these newcomers to the land of freedom and opportunity weren't happy at all! "The Custom House," from which the quote is taken, is a self-standing (and skippable) introduction to The Scarlet Letter, and, as we all know, The Scarlet Letter is not a book meant to show that going new places makes people better, stronger, and renewed. to the contrary. it is a sad book about the ever new ways in which people refashion the meanness and narrowness they bring with themselves, wherever they go.

i realize this interpretation of The Scarlet Letter is extremely arguable, but for the purpose of this discussion i'm going to try to stick with it.

the people shown in U.E., just like the people shown in The Scarlet Letter, are far from regenerated and revitalized from their move to this fair land. in fact, they seem shriveled, and lonely, and not a little lost.

but then, and this is the gist of the review that you can see on my homepage, they are not, it seems to me, portrayed particularly as immigrants. rather, they seem to me to suffer from a misery that is rather universal -- the misery of humanity, loneliness, incomprehension, disconnect, inability to love, disappointment, psychological inertia, inner deadedness. so, you see, the "unaccustomed earth" epigram is doubly misleading: it is misleading because people do not thrive when they move from one land to another; and it is misleading because the misery depicted in U.E. has, ultimately, it seems to me, not much to do with moving around, and a lot to do with being human.

which means that jhumpa lahiri doesn't have a sunny view of the human condition.

as further support, i'd like to propose that americanness as such -- the place, the culture, the politics, the geography, the land, the cities, the suburbs, etc. -- has at best an extremely subsidiary role in the book. and there is no reminiscing about families left behind, a lost world, the comfort of community spices food bustle scents music dance etc., which are all landmarks of immigrant literature.

also, the first generationers, the parents, do not come here out of poverty or to escape persecution. they come here to get Ph.D.s or M.D.s, are perfectly free to go back, and often do.

so this is something i think would be worth discussing: how much of the pain portrayed in this book has to do with immigration, and how much has to do with being human? but also: is immigration the postmodern (20th-21st century) condition, and has it become so large a part of being human that one cannot discuss it separately, at least when talking about a certain class of people? (and the theme of class is super prominent in the book, but i am going to touch on it for now only in these parentheses).

i'm going to put up another couple of themes, before they disappear from my mind entirely:

*** the language, which is terse and simple and unpretentious, and uses for the most part very plain words, yet is also intense and rich and magic. how does she do it???

*** the awful relations that keep together and simulatanouesly tear apart, cruelly, the book's families, especially the awful relations between parents and children;

*** the almost consistent lack of love; and when love is there, it is doomed -- by death, misapprehension, mistakes, etc.

many short stories are worth discussing separately. feel free to bring them up!!!

okay, hope this helps. sorry for being so opinionated. my excuse is that it generally makes for better discussions!

happy reading in the meantime, if you have made it this far!

message 3: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments yay tomorrow we start discussing Unaccustomed Earth. here's a short bio of the fabulous(ly beautiful) jhumpa lahiri (pronounced joompa laheerey) and below are some choice quotes from an interview with the Atlantic about Unaccustomed.

"With this new book, as opposed to the first collection, I worked on many of the stories for years while they kept evolving and evolving and evolving."

"It interests me to imagine characters shifting from one situation and one location to another for whatever the circumstances may be."

"When you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always—or at least I was—very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself."

"My parents had an arranged marriage, as did so many other people when I was growing up. My father came and had a life in the United States one way and my mother had a different one, and I was very aware of those things. I continue to wonder about it, and I will continue to write about it."

"I've been reading a lot of 19th-century novels recently. I've always loved Chekhov and Tolstoy, but lately it's been Hardy. He's one of those novelists whose work I always go to. I will never get tired of those novels. The complete worlds that he creates—they are so focused and compelling. I don't think I know how to do that at all in my own work, but I find it inspiring. I really enter into something complete and rich and satisfying. There is a balance between the human drama and the world around it, and that interchange is so beautifully done. I also like learning things in those books—about the agricultural society, the hay, the farm—I love that. And I like it more the older I get. That connection to the land and how rooted it is. I've also been reading Hawthorne. That's how I got the title for this book."

"I read William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant obsessively."

"I like [my language:] to be plain. It appeals to me more. There's form and there's function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn't comfortable. I don't want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can."

"To be honest with you, and maybe this is shirking my duty in some way, I like to try and stay as disconnected as I can from the world of contemporary writing because I just think it's best for my writing. I want to be a little bit unplugged."

message 4: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I'm running a little behind in my reading - I should be finished by tomorrow. But meanwhile, I like the quote you gave us, jo.

"I like [my language:] to be plain. It appeals to me more. There's form and there's function and I have never been a fan of just form....Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can."

I think that this is one of the appealing things about her work. Her style is straightforward and accessible - not a lot of bells and whistles - but her words serve the story beautifully.

Back to the book.....

message 5: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments okay let me try to entice you out... how about the first story? what did you think of the father and what did you think of the daughter?

(mina, the discussion is not longer visible from the homepage -- it doesn't have the book icon. did you change something?).

message 6: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments (mina, the discussion is not longer visible from the homepa..."

Must have been a glitch in the system, jo. At the moment, it's OK. I'll be back a little later to talk about the first story, which I thought was very good.

message 7: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Oops, we're a little slow on this discussion, I see! I thought it was just me - things have been a little nutty here. But I have finished the book and I thought that it was excellent. I liked it better as I went along and even better after I was finished, so for those who are still reading, I do recommend that you keep going.

My favorite in the collection was "Hell-Heaven", which I had read before in an anthology but which held up beautifully on another reading. But, backing up to the first story, I thought that the depiction of the three generations was very touching. Of course, since I'm a grandma, I loved the gently growing relationship between the grandfather and grandson. The distance between father and daughter was very understandable - they hardly knew each other and each certainly valued their privacy, but they tried to connect as much as they could. The father had developed a completely new life after his wife's death about which his daughter knew almost nothing. His unwillingness to give that life up to follow the traditional path of moving in with his adult child was healthy for them both.

jo, I agree that the first generation Indian Americans seem less like immigrants than like people suspended in limbo between two cultures, belonging fully to neither. As you said, they came to the US for professional advancement and for educational advantages for their children. When the second generation does not follow the prescribed path, they seem totally confused. Their children are not in limbo; they are American children, with all the complications that go along with that condition.

Anyone else ready to jump in?

message 8: by Qiana (last edited Feb 07, 2009 04:35AM) (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hey y'all: I'm still reading, or to be more specific, I just got my hands on the book this week!!! I may just start to offer my comments as I finish chapters/sections of the book - if that's okay. Since the previous comments are full of spoilers, I'm going to read a bit more of the book before I review what you have already said. My initial impressions, though, are all positive. I am loving the juxtaposition of the daughter and father's perspectives. I read Lahiri's book of short stories a few years ago and I remember enjoying that as well.

message 9: by Savitha (new)

Savitha Hi,
My name is Savitha and I am new to this group -- hello, everyone, and thank you for letting me join you.

I am a huge fan of Jhumpa Lahiri; I devoured the Namesake and The Interpreter of Maladies, and I'm thoroughly enjoying Unaccustomed Earth. I'm usually not a fan of the short story (I'm partial to getting to know the characters who populate a story and to accompanying them on their journeys of growth and development, and I find that the short story does not often lend itself to that), but Jhumpa Lahiri's stories draw me in, almost in spite of myself. Even though she writes about a tiny community - how many Bengali immigrants are there in the United States, really? -- her themes are universal and compelling.

In the first story, I felt that Ruma, the daughter, lives a life where her worlds and her multiple, complex identities (Indian/ Western, professional/ homemaker, wife/ daughter/ mother) constantly collide. She's caught between who she is and who she wants to be, between doing the right thing and the thing that will make her feel right. Her confusion about her relationship with her father is understandable, and her disappointment when he refuses to live with her and her family palpable.

It also seemed to me to be a story where Ruma is recalibrating her relationship wit her father, in the context of the people they have both become in the wake of her mother's death. Her father seems to have become, in some strange way, freer to be who he is after his wife has died, whereas it seems to have forced Ruma to a space where she clings to the memories of her mother.

My favorite thing about Jhumpa Lahiri as a writer, though, is how her stories reflect my personal experiences, but in a way that adds immensely to my understanding of these experiences. And, I found that the first story really spoke to me. I've been here in the United States for about ten years: I moved here from India, a little before I turned 30, to go to graduate school. In the course of living here, I met and fell in love with a man -- an American -- and married him a few years ago. My mother lives in India and I've recently become more concerned about her care, especially as she gets older and a little more frail each day.Given that is my background, I found the first story powerful.

message 10: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Welcome, Savitha! Thanks for all of your insightful comments. It's so interesting to hear from a reader who has similar experiences to the characters in Lahiri's works.

I loved your statement that Ruma is "recalibrating her relationship with her father" - that's exactly the right term. Her standard was her mother, and without her, her entire role in terms of her father has to be recalibrated. She knows what her mother would have done at each step; her father is an unknown entity, especially since he has transformed himself after his wife's death.

I also felt Ruma's loneliness going through marriage, motherhood, and pregnancy without her mother's presence. Memories are a poor substitute, especially since her husband travels so much and Ruma has lost her circle of women friends and her coworkers by moving to Seattle with her husband. This kind of loneliness, as jo mentioned, is very American, a product of a very mobile society and the emphasis on the nuclear family rather than the extended family.

This nuclear family isolation seemed, to me, to be a recurring sorrow in Lahiri's stories. I kept wondering if the arranged marriages would have been much happier in a close knit community where, surrounded by friends and family, the new husband-wife relationship would be able to grow slowly into a closer, deeper one without taking such an emotional toll on the couple, especially the women. The marriages which survive for, say, 20 years seem to become close - it's those lonely early years that seem so hard in a strange land.

message 11: by Jean (new)

Jean | 140 comments The first story is my favorite. I am left with much hope for the future relationships of Ruma, her father and especially the grandson. The father is coming to grips with the person who he is becoming and Ruma appears to be able to understand him a bit better. After all, she mails his letter to his lady friend and because of the varied roles that she leads, she is able to see a glimpse of her father's new mind-set.

message 12: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I agree, Jean. What did you think of "Hell-Heaven"?

message 13: by jo (last edited Feb 09, 2009 08:55AM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments hey guys! people are saying super-smart things about the first story (which gives the title to the whole collection, so JL must have thought it was a pretty good story, too, jean!) so i thought i'd reread it, to refresh my memory.

hi savitha! great to have you here! you say:

It also seemed to me to be a story where Ruma is recalibrating her relationship wit her father, in the context of the people they have both become in the wake of her mother's death. Her father seems to have become, in some strange way, freer to be who he is after his wife has died, whereas it seems to have forced Ruma to a space where she clings to the memories of her mother.

i feel that you are entirely right, and yet, there seems to me to be something lacking in the father. while ruma tries to connect to him, he simply decides to leave because being alone and going on trips with his lady friend is the life he likes best. and of course we are all entitled to our own lives and all that, but, at the same time, from the point of view of the story, i felt a great void in ruma's life -- the void her mother left and her father quite simply is not willing to fill. why is is that fathers "[claim:] an armchair in the living room, quietly combing through the Times, occasionally tucking a finger under the baby's chin but behaving as if [they:] were waiting for the time to pass"? (page 6)

i feel that, in her relentless analysis of the loneliness that breeds and fosters in families, lahiri is quite fearless in pointing her finger at fathers (bengali and otherwise), with their bland postcards from faraway places and their emotional walled-in-edness.

and then there's adam, a super nice but also very absent husband, and the young boy akash, who, it seems to me, is subtly described in ruma's sections of the story as a hostile presence. this is not to say that she doesn't love him or that they are not close. but you know what loneliness does to young mothers... this is a rather intense passage in this respect: "He was only three, but sometimes she already felt the resistance, the profound barrier she assumed would set in with adolescence. After the move he'd grown difficult... There were times Akash would throw himself without warning on the ground, the body she'd nurtured inside of her utterly alien, hostile."

this may be a stretch, but there is much in this story, it seems to me, about the different emotional roles played my men and women in families, and about the loneliness of women.

now, are we ready to talk about "Hell-Heaven?" :-)

message 14: by jo (last edited Feb 09, 2009 02:15PM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments *** SPOILERS ***

"Hell-Heaven," for those who had to return their books to the library, is the story in which the narrator's mother, boudi, falls in love with the young man who becomes sort of family after the narrator's father befriends him in Cambridge, MA, pranab. he hangs out with the narrator's family (can't find the narrator's name!) all the time, until he falls in love and then marries a white woman called deborah. marriage ends after fourteen years and deborah looks for consolation in narrator's mother, unaware of the fact that the woman had been very jealous of her and even considered setting herself on fire out of grief.

message 15: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Hi everyone,

Overall, I enjoyed this collection quite a bit. Which is interesting to me, because I've never read very many short stories. I found the work as a whole to be a quiet, contemplative read, which was enjoyable to me. As we go on the discussion, I do want to throw out the disclaimer that I'm having trouble remembering the specific titles of the stories, and identify them more through their main characters.

For the first, I largely agree with what you all have said so far. I do, though, think that the decision by the father to return to his life was the "right" one, and the one that showed his own way of caring for his daughter. I think that he recognized that she was mostly extending the offer because she felt bound to do it, not because of her true desire to have him there. The bittersweet part of it was the discovery that they did actually enjoy each other, and could get along. But I think the father made the difficult choice of recognizing what was best for both of them was to go on in their independent lives.

Looking at the title, "The Unaccustomed Earth," and the analogy drawn for roots taking hold in new soil: Not only does this allow the baby plants to thrive in their new unused land, it also ensures that the parent plants will not be choked out and forced to compete for nourishment in their own plots. This first story showed me the dual side of that, the most I think.

The story that sticks with the most as I reflect back on the collection was that of the sister and her alcoholic brother. The feeling of the relationship between them- older sister feeling so responsible for her brother and all his problems, not knowing how to help with them, not knowing if she even should be helping with them, and all the time feeling guilty for her the ease of her relative "success"- they all struck me as so true and deeply developed. So it was heartbreaking to me that this one didn't have a "happy ending." But, I guess that is life.

As you all refresh my memory on the others, I'll be sure to keep chiming in.

message 16: by jo (last edited Feb 09, 2009 01:40PM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments hey rashida! you know, i took the quotation from hawthorne to be ironic -- not for hawthorne maybe, though i'm not sure, but certainly for lahiri. did you really find the story with the alcoholic brother ("Only Goodness") surprising in its bad ending? it seems to me there wasn't one story with a happy ending in the whole book! (i know that jean thinks me wrong!)

In Unaccustomed Earth ruma's feelings for her father grow in unexpected ways. first, akash becomes happier, less cranky. then, "with Akash outside all day, Ruma had time to do a few things around the house, small and large things she'd been putting off (43). later: "While her father was in the shower, she made tea. It was a ritual she liked, a formal recognition of the day turning into evening in spite of the sun not setting. When she was on her own, these hours passed arbitrarily. She was grateful for the opportunity to sit on the porch with her father." her father's presence, the presence of another, gives a rhythm both to ruma and to akash's lives.

when she asks if he would stay, she cries.

but the father's response, as spoken to himself, is: "He knew that it was not for his sake that his daughter was asking him to live there... She needed him, as he'd never felt she'd needed him before... But it was not what he wanted. Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact. He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter's life, in the shadow of her marriage" (53).

he explicitly disavows the blood connection with his daughter, the biological mirroring that leads to an instinctual and compelling claim on the part of the offspring: "It was Ruma to whom he would give a new reminder that, now that his wife was gone, even though he was still alive, there was no longer anyone to care for her... The more [his:] children grew, the less they had seemed to resemble either parent... Oddly, it was his grandson, who was only half-Bengali to begin with, who didn't even have a Bengali surname, with whom he felt a direct biological connection, a sense of himself reconstituted in another... But these were on old man's speculations, an old man who was himself now behaving like a child" (54-55; my emphasis).

the father does not want to make the emotional and cultural shift, embrace a changing life, changing children, a changing place, out of love for his daughter. maybe he's unable to do so. lahiri is a deeply compassionate author and we do see the father's point of view. but the fact is that his wife could. for the sake of her children. and he can't. so maybe he's sparing ruma the weight of his own limitations, but at the same time, as a daughter myself, i feel he could/should have tried.

at the end, the only new plants that grow in this unaccustomed earth are the ones the father plants in ruma's garden, and that are soon destined to wilt...

in closing (sorry for the lengthy post!!!!) i wonder, with lahiri (i think she wonders too): what do we owe each other, just in virtue of being members of the same family? this is extremely poignant in "Heaven-Hell" too, so might be worth contemplating in the discussion of the story as well.

message 17: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I think that you're being awfully hard on the father, jo. After all, Ruma is a grown woman who made a choice to move west with her husband. I don't think that the father should feel obliged to move in with her. He's correct in saying, "This is your home, not mine." I think that his choice was the best for both of them, in the long run, and, like Jean, I think that their relationship will grow stronger over time. He did promise to visit again.

I did not interpret her relationship with her son as anything but the usual. You quoted the passage:

"He was only three, but sometimes she already felt the resistance, the profound barrier she assumed would set in with adolescence. After the move he'd grown difficult... There were times Akash would throw himself without warning on the ground, the body she'd nurtured inside of her utterly alien, hostile."

All I can say is, "Been there; done that." I love my son more than life itself, but parenting is hard! I see the same thing with my daughter and her son. It just goes with the territory, especially with high-energy boys. It'll work out in time, but (repeating myself) it's just hard. I thought Lahiri's description was right on the money.

Now I'm going to call my beloved, grown-up son who is a wonderful man with his own family, and lean on him for a little advice.

message 18: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments I still think that the decision not to move in was the best for them. I don't think it would be easy for Ruma, necessarily, but she did need to work her family issues out and get herself together. She was coming to lean on her father as the supplier of her solution, not necessarily for any greater connectedness with him. I'm not saying that they did not form a closer bond, I think they did, and like Jean and Mina that they will continue to. But remember that Ruma wanted a nanny but felt too guilty about the premise. She was valuing her father most for that type of assistance, and I think it was very perceptive of him to recognize that moving in there he would always be on the periphery of their family unit. Just as the children in these stories should not owe their parents the duty of moving them in "just because," the parents also do not owe their children the duty of becoming second helpers at the cost of their own autonomy. I really think that with this ending we are seeing the opportunity for both characters to grow personally while starting a new and more rewarding relationship with each other. I think the relationship would have stagnated, and so would they individually, if father had moved in.

And no, I was not surprised, per se, by the sad ending of Only Goodness, just very saddened by it.

message 19: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments mina and rashida, of course "parents... do not owe their children the duty of becoming second helpers at the cost of their own autonomy"! i remember when i saw The Hours (the movie; i haven't read the book) and laura brown makes the terrible choice to leave her child behind, and the horrible thing is, you know how that child ends up! she does it to save herself, and the viewer may think that she's selfish or he/she may think that she's right, but it seems clear to me that, whatever the viewer's opinion, the story has a built-in argument in favor of her departure.

likewise, i do not hold any general opionion in favor of parents' sacrificing their autonomy for their grown-up kids' sakes (far from it!!!), or, for that matter, i don't blame mothers (or fathers) for finding their kids hard to raise and for feeling really angry at them on occasion!

i was only trying to read within the story, letting myself be led where lahiri's language leads, and of course i'm entirely aware that all along it's me reading, you know, but, hey, i cannot read except as me! in any case, i brought some evidence from the text that lahiri wonders aloud what we owe each other in virtue of being family, and it's entirely cool that people here disagree (yay disagreement!), because i suspect that's where she wants us!

mina, what struck you in particular about Heaven- Hell? and what's with the title anyway?!?

message 20: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I'm sure that you're right about Lahiri being pleased by our differing views, jo!
I felt that the title "Hell-Heaven" was broader than indicated in the story; in fact, this could have been a title for the whole collection. Aparna uses it to describe the changes in Pranab after he becomes involved with Deborah, but it really fits her entire relationship with Pranab. With him, she has both the greatest happiness she has known and the greatest pain. But beyond that, it seems to describe the entire experience of Lahiri's characters in the US. They live in a world of increased mobility and material comfort combined with intense loneliness and disappointment. The phrase could also refer to anyone caught in tension between two cultures, never completely belonging to either.

message 21: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments yes, i think you are totally right. i don't remember though why she had the greatest pain... can you jog my memory? and thanks for remembering the narrator's name!

message 22: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments hey all, short stories are a bit hard to discuss, because one forgets them, or one forgets the details, etc.

anyone feels like saying something about what they liked in the collection as a whole, and what story moved them the most (for any reason)? i'm happy to post a little summary to refresh people's memory...

message 23: by Qiana (last edited Feb 12, 2009 08:45AM) (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hi all! I'm sitting here at the Mazda dealership waiting room - getting a tune-up for my car - and thank goodness they have free wireless. I just finished the first story, "Unaccustomed Earth." (I've been wiping away the tears as I read, trying not embarrass myself in this waiting room!?!)

I've read everyone else's response to this story and I have to say that my reaction is so fully and unashamedly an emotional one that I'm not sure I have anything new to add. As a parent of a toddler, living far from home and family, I found that the eloquence and honesty that Lahiri brings to her portrayal of Ruma's experience to be uncanny. To be so overwhelmed, and to struggle with a child that you love so much, but that is so utterly dependent on you. Lahiri couples these contradictions perfectly with the inevitability of change, loss, and death.

"He is made from your meat and bone." It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now - that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.

I loved the juxtaposition of the father's voice. Through him, we see a different kind of vulnerability in the way he attempts to figure out how to relate to his daughter (and come to terms with memories of his wife in their early years). I was especially moved by his observations about marriage and parenting as part of a life cycle that we all move in and out of as we grow.

In that way, I completely agree with Jo's speculation that the postmodern condition is an "immigrant experience." And each new phase of our life is like a new country we inhabit with its own new language and customs to learn. These days very few people remain in the same house all their lives or even in the same town (which is perhaps why Ruma's husband couldn't seem to understand what the big deal was about inviting her father to live with them.)

Seeing the father's relationship with his grandson, Akash, develop, I really wanted him to stay and give Ruma the support she so desperately needed. But I can't help but think that he did the right thing, that his brief stay might energize her to claim her own sense of self more fully. It is mighty hard to think beyond the present moment when your little one is grinding play-dough into the carpet. But this is exactly what Ruma needs to start doing.

He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start. But these were an old man's speculations, an old man who was himself now behaving like a child" (54-55).

Oh my God, what a beautiful passage. So bittersweet. Sniffling again...

I know you guys are trying to move on to other stories so I hope to have more to contribute later.

message 24: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Did it seem to anyone else that throughout these stories, the characters who are most boxed in are the mothers? I would have liked to be able to explore events from their point of view. I would really be interested in reading Hell-Heaven written this way, as opposed to through the daughter's filter. I would say that Lahiri purposefully kept her stories delivered by the second generation in order to keep us focused on the disconnect that the migration caused. But, we have the later story told from the American roommate's perspective, so that kind of throws that theory out of the water.

message 25: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Rashida wrote: "Did it seem to anyone else that throughout these stories, the characters who are most boxed in are the mothers? I would have liked to be able to explore events from their point of view. I would r..."

I think that the boxed in mothers would be unlikely to reveal much of themselves in the story. The second generation, being very American, can express more, but the mothers are accustomed to holding back their emotions. Look at how little emotion Aparna displays to anyone about what she went through. Can you imagine dousing yourself with lighter fluid to set yourself on fire, then going back into the house and cooking dinner for the family like any other day? She only revealed what happened to her daughter in order to console the daughter about her own broken heart.

message 26: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments "To be so overwhelmed, and to struggle with a child that you love so much, but that is so utterly dependent on you. "

I agree totally, Qiana. My children are adults now (Hooray! They made it in one piece!) and they are strong, intelligent, loving human beings with their own families, but I will never forget that feeling. I think that Lahiri got it just right. (People claim that the advantage in being a grandparent is that you can send the children home, but the truth is that if you have responsible, loving children, they are the ones who are struggling; the grandparents just get to have fun!)

I guarantee you, Qiana, that this will not be the last story in this book to rip your heart out.

message 27: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1232 comments Mod
I hate to be the fly in the ointment but I am not the huge fan of the collection that most of the other contributors here seem to be. I found the first story to be way to slow moving and uneventful for my taste and found myself daydreaming and watching the scenery go by in the metro as I read rather than reading....always a bad sign. If Rashida hadn't encouraged me to keep reading I probably would not have finished it. I'm not a fan of "slice of life" type stories that are contained in this collection. But I did enjoy some of them and was rewarded nicely for my perseverence in the stories of Sangeeta, the alcoholic brother, and the truly unexpected ending of the final chapter. The the way it dovetailed with the other stories was ingenious.
In the story of Sangeeta and Paul the characters really came alive whereas others did not. She was arrogant, vain, narcissistic and blinded by love. Paul was petty, obtuse, small-minded and blinded by love. Farouk was a cad and heartless bastard and Diedre a pitiable semi know, the kinds of characters that provide the tensions to make good fiction...loved the ending of this story too..I look forward to contributing as the readers catch up and the discussion revolves around some of the latter stories...

message 28: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Bill, that was one of the few stories that I didn't enjoy at all! I can handle one pathetic woman running after a rotten guy in a story, but two and I'm over my limit. I just start muttering, 'What is WRONG with these women?"

I agree with you completely about the stories comprising section 2 of the book. Worth the prize all by themselves.

message 29: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Ahem...okay, after looking at my post again...I'm feeling more than a little self-conscious. Something I should have saved for the therapist, maybe?

Can't wait to get to some of those other stories this evening!

message 30: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Hey, I shed a tear or two during that story myself. My father died when my son was 3, so....

message 31: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1232 comments Mod
Mina, I must say that that angle never crossed my field of vision. Would you feel the same way about 2 men vying for the hand of a duplicitious young maiden? Or would that be a romantic triangle? And Deidre had suspicions about Sangeeta and took action while Sangeeta was a little dense but unaware of Deidre. So don't be so hard on them. Or the story. The people are flawed people, which I like much better in fiction than the humble and long suffering ones that populate most of the other short stories, but this story and particulartly that ending that I won't give away right now was a pretty good one (in my opinion).

message 32: by Janet (new)

Janet | 224 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "Rashida wrote: "Did it seem to anyone else that throughout these stories, the characters who are most boxed in are the mothers? I would have liked to be able to explore events from their point of ..."

are they boxed in, and/or shut out? they're somewhat flattened maybe - we don't hear from them very often, we don't hear their voices, but perceive them through the narration..

message 33: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments hey janet, i've been pondering the same. some of them die (first story, last story, maybe others) or almost die (second story, maybe others).

i liked the story of sang, paul, deirdre, and farouk, too, actually (title is Nobody's Business). maybe because it was different. maybe because paul seems very sweet and very american, and therefore as clueless and hopeless and hopelessly well-meaning in my eyes as he must have been in
lahiri's (disclaimer: i'm totally and shamelessly projecting).

at cost of attracting william's ire, though, i confess that i would probably not have liked this story if it had been written by a man. silly women who fall with bad guys should be handled by other women, not by other guys. this is why (nod to jean) i didn't like Disgrace.

message 34: by William (last edited Feb 13, 2009 09:42AM) (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1232 comments Mod
I'm to old for ire...rightous indignation maybe... and you do realize that if you take your argument about who should handle writing about whom to its logical conclusion, that no one is qualified to write anything about anyone.

message 35: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments no. :-)

message 36: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Hey, two pathetic women running after a rotten guy, two pathetic men running after a duplicitous woman - all the same to me. I certainly wouldn't see it as romantic from either direction.

message 37: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Nobody's Business made me question the larger message of this collection. Was it to speak on the immigrant experience? Does a collection of short stories need a larger message? It seemed to me that this one stood out the most from the others in terms of any overarching theme. I didn't get a sense of Sang's life, at all, except that she was spoiled and a bit clueless. Was that maybe the point? That in all of these stories of the way that immigration has affected the other characters, there will be those who don't seem affected by it, at all. Is Lahiri's point here perhaps to emphasize the "sameness" of all people?

message 38: by jo (last edited Feb 13, 2009 05:13PM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments i love, rashida, that, like me, you are haunted by the question "what is the point?" i try to shake it, especially with short stories, but it's hard. i always hope for a large coherence, and i must say that this collection comes as close as one can desire to having an overarching theme. i think that i liked this story largely because it seemed so different, and so pointless. just a story. farouk is the only non-white-american character in the book apart from the bengali ones. whatever that means. i considered briefly that paul's infatuation with sang might have been a sort of orientalism, you know, a variety of infatuation with the exotic other. but that is neither here nor there. the only theme that encompasses all stories, it seems to me, is that love is hopeless pursuit.

and i return to this -- the hopelessness of love -- because, from the discussion of the first story, i see an inclination in this group to see lahiri's presentation of love as much more optimistic than i saw it. it seems to me she's pretty desperately down on it. anyone feel like discussing amit and megan and the surprising love-making that ends A Choice of Accommodations?? looks like a happy ending, but i think that, you know, it isn't.

message 39: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I hope that we're not going to end our discussion without talking about the three linked stories that form "Hema and Kaushik". That section of the book really sold me on the collection.

message 40: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments agreed! i really loved them! my husband liked them the least, for some incomprehensible reason...

message 41: by William (last edited Feb 17, 2009 03:02AM) (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1232 comments Mod
I hope that you realized (mina) that I was talking tongue in cheek..many forests have been clear cut to support the book publishing of the romantic fantasy of 2 guys vying for the hand of one maiden, no matter the "quality" of the object of their affection.

I must agree that the interwoven ending stories were great..Was Hema mentioned by name before the last story? I didnt think I could stand a whole new cast of (Italian) characters and I didn't know who she was until the fateful meeting at the party..then it all came together and I smiled internally..which is another sign of a great book to put it all together and really prepared me for both Kaushik's redemption and the tragic ending.
But (rashida) yes most good books reflect upon the overarching theme of shared humanity, that we are all the same, arranged marriages, freedom to persue western ideals, cultures, even to intermarry, not withstanding, was what it seemed to me what the author was saying, and also that some in this group of characters would not only be happier but would be better off and flourish in places other than the U.S. and the west..The immigrant theme of.."yeah its tough but look how we've prospered and flourished regardless".. But why was the story of the interracial couple at the prep school the saddest? If everything was equal? If I had to guess they would not be together much longer...he suffering from trying to be twice the white man of normal white men and her from her unresolved guilt/racial issues.

message 42: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments "2 men vying for the hand of a duplicitious young maiden?"
Of course I got it, Bill! Not exactly your everyday speech!

I found that story (prep school) to be sad because, to me, it wasn't primarily about the immigrant experience. It just seemed to be the same kind of disconnectedness and poor communication and missteps that seem to occur at the end of any marriage. I remember a "woman's magazine" years ago that had a monthly column entitled, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" In this case, no. This marriage is headed for the dumpster.

I was also unprepared and delighted by Hema's appearance in an unexpected location in the last story. It made their reunion and the subsequent tragedy so much more poignant. But, going back, I found the relationship between their parents to be very interesting as well. There you really see the sense of responsibility toward fellow immigrants from one's part of the world exceeding the bonds of friendship and actually destroying those bonds. The secrecy surrounding Kaushik's mother's illness distorted all the interactions between the families, making Kaushik's parents seem selfish and unconcerned about their effect on Hema's family. American-born people probably would have had a blow-up, the secrets would come out as secrets tend to do, and they could have renegotiated from there. But in a culture where hospitality to one's countrymen is paramount, the secrets chrushed the friendship.

message 43: by William (last edited Feb 17, 2009 08:12AM) (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1232 comments Mod
Yup yup yup! what degree..and to what is culturally and familiarly permissable..all tend to either explode or by friction and time become exposed. The exposing of which and the hidden motives and agendas made for a nice set of subplots..

message 44: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I've been moving back into my house at last and, except for a slight phobia of tall trees (what would that be called - arboraphobia?), we're doing OK. But I didn't want to stop this discussion without talking about the tragedy at the end of "Hema and Kaushik". What struck me was how much Hema's internal pain and external normalcy reminded me of Aparna's actions in "Hell-Heaven". Both women went through the greatest pain of their lives without revealing their feelings in any way. Hema proceeds with her planned wedding, treating the loss of her great love as if he were merely someone she had known as a child. It broke my heart.

message 45: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Don't all of these characters suffer in silence? Ruma tells noone of her feelings of isolation, the husband in a choice of accomodations only lets out his worries when drunk, the sister never tells her husband about the trouble with her brother, paul doesn't tell sang how he feels and she in turn runs away when things unravel. So we're left with Hema and Kaushik. He hides his pain from his mother's death literally and figuratively, burying her in an unknown location on the northeast shoreline. It's not at all surprising to me that Hema tells noone. That had been her plan all along. With his unexpected death I can imagine that her motive for disclosure would grow even less. It's interesting to me to imagine the rest of her life and what effect her hidden pain will ultimately have on her marriage and her child. Maybe Lahiri's overarching theme in this collection is "geez, people, communicate already!"

message 46: by Janet (new)

Janet | 224 comments or is another piece of the theme that we ('regular' people and/or people in novels) lack the wherewithal to communicate those wordless angst-filled feelings we tend to carry with us throughout our lives..?

message 47: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1232 comments Mod
I'm reminded of something I once read or heard somewhere that there should never be such a thing as a bad date. Afterall is it so difficult for 2 humans to be pleasant to each other for 2-3 hours max? But imagine, if you will, trying to be pleasant to another for perhaps a liftime? To hope against hope that your lifetime of pleasantness will eventualy turn into love? Well thats whats asked of most characters in this collection, at least those who started there lives on the subcontinent. Thats what drives a lot of the tension is the comparison with the Americanized second generation. Without diving to deeply into the stereotypical stoic Easterner vs the instant gratification of the the Eastern way so terrrible? Recent studies show that participants in arranged unions are just as happy as those in love seeking ones. Hema though thoroughly Westernized made a choice to go the traditional route. That her true love died tragically was really just a tangent to the fact that she made a choice to marry one she didn't really love but it was a valid choice all the same...

message 48: by jo (last edited Feb 26, 2009 07:59AM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments i can't even *begin* to enter a conversation about the ways of marriage. this lifelong union (i'm in one myself) is such a mystery to me. and, frankly, its mandatory pleasantness is not more mysterious to me then the pleasantness we owe each other just because we are each other's mothers, daughters, fathers, aunts, sisters...

i love my nieces and nephews fiercely yet i have seen them a lot less (hours, really) than i've seen many other people i don't even begin to love as much. what is it with family, hey?

as i said before, i think this is a central theme of UE. that we are stuck, not just with our families, but with LOVING our families, and the fact the we choose them or not is pretty irrelevant, since we get to choose, at best, ONE of their members!

here's an entirely unrelated point. i LOVE that lahiri closed with the 2006 (?) tsunami. i read it as contrapuntal to 9/11, which many american writers see as *the* central tragedy of our generation. by picking the tsunami as the defining global tragedy of this book (which is in all other respects very intimate and detached from the events of the wide world), lahiri shifts the focus to asia, the subcontinent, and the global south, but also, more poignantly, to the wide world and much bigger and more easily forgotten tragedies.

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