Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

Eventually, someday, Jhumpa Lahiri is going to have to stop writing exclusively about Bengali expats adapting to America, or she'll risk falling into a rut. But that day clearly hasn't yet arrived. Following her novel The Namesake (and its attendant film adaptation) and her Pulitzer-winning debut anthology Interpreter Of Maladies, she returns with Unaccustomed Earth, another collection of short(ish) fiction, largely about Indians in America, generally in relationships with Americans, and dealing with their disconnect from their ancestral land, their first-generation immigrant parents, or themselves. Over six stories—some approaching novella length—she engages in slow, ruminative character studies. The premises aren't as clever as the ones in Maladies, but the writing is more mature and expansive, and while the broad parameters may sound similar, each story unfolds into its own distinctly flavored creation.


In the title story, a Bengali woman married to an American man observes her 70-year-old father getting to know her 3-year-old son; as they bond, she worries that her widowed father will expect to move in and be cared for—or that he won't. The book's tenderest and most inexplicable story, "Nobody's Business," has an American college student quietly nursing a crush on his Indian housemate, but saying nothing as her love life becomes increasingly complicated. In "A Choice Of Accommodations," an Indian man brings his American wife to the wedding of his old flame, staged at his old prep school.

And so forth and so on, with Lahiri tracing the details and minutia of ordinary lives, underlining the cultural expectations and tensions that move them, but shaping stories that are more about them than about their countries of origin. Unaccustomed Earth is less specific about Bengali customs and traditions than Lahiri's previous work; the shadow of India falls into her characters' lives, generally in the form of their parents, but heritage is just another element in the stew, rather than the main ingredient. The stories are gentle and observational, with few twists or moments of sudden impact; they stretch out lazily like cats in sunlight, taking their time with more assurance than Lahiri's previous work. The results are often sleepy and meandering, and can take some time to get into, particularly since it's rarely clear where Lahiri is going until the journey is nearly over. But each one gradually deepens, much as Lahiri's work is gradually deepening over time.