Thursday, April 22, 2021

Book 281: Interpreter of Maladies


"She was like that, excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream, or dropping a letter in a mailbox. It was a quality he did not understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate, or see. He looked at her face, which, it occurred to him, had not grown out of its girlhood, the eyes untroubled, the pleasing features unfirm, as if they still had to settle into some sort of permanent expression."

Dates read: December 4-7, 20187

Rating: 7/10

Lists/Awards: Pulitzer Prize

When you actually think about it, the United States is an enormous country. If you travel the distance equivalent of a few states in Europe, you're in an entirely different nation, with its own language and culture and customs. So it's no surprise that moving to a new region can feel, in a small way, like immigrating. When I moved from the Midwest to the Deep South for law school, I felt different from many of my classmates. We all spoke the same language and ostensibly had the same national norms, but life there was not like the life I'd known (and before you assume, I am not saying that to denigrate the South...people there were mostly lovely and there are few things that bother me more than people making cheap jokes at the expense of Southerners). And then moving again from the Midwest to the Mountain West, it was the same thing. I've been a Nevadan for nearly a decade now, but there are still little things that happen every so often that remind me that I'm not really from here.

Themes of immigration, of the struggle to understand a new culture, permeate Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. It's not necessarily the central point of every story, though...while all of them do feature Indian people, there are two that are set in India among Indians, and a few of them have white people as main characters. The stories cover a variety of situations, from a young couple struggling to reconnect after a tragedy to second-generation Indians traveling to the country of their parents' birth. Loneliness and disconnection are everywhere, and while many of the stories are more-or-less sad, there are also moments of levity and humor and on the whole this is surprisingly not a bummer collection to read.

I struggle so hard with conveying my thoughts on short stories, y'all, unless they're of the "interlinked" variety. For my money, this is a strong but (as almost always) uneven collection of work. My favorite stories were the opener ("A Temporary Matter") and the closer ("The Third and Final Continent"). That first one, about a couple reconnecting during a utility blackout, was a total incredible gut-punch and had me psyched for more of the same. And while there are high moments (like "This Blessed House", about a couple who keep finding tacky Christian decor in their new home and the tension between the husband and wife about what to do with it, which I found incredibly funny, and the not-at-all-funny-but-heartwrenching "Mrs. Sen's", about a preteen being babysat by a desperately lonely young Indian housewife), nothing comes close again to the impact of the first story until the last one, which relates the tale of a young Indian man who has just moved to the US and his very elderly white landlady.

All of the stories are very technically accomplished...they're well written, the characters are vivid, the prose is insightful. As someone with no gift at all for creative writing, I admire short stories almost more than I do novels. To tell a whole story that emotionally resonates in a limited page count is something fiendishly difficult, and Lahiri does it beautifully. While some of the stories are more closely related than others (there's no crossover in any of them), they all feel like they belong, nothing feels shoehorned in. Even some of the weaker stories, like "Sexy", have moments that I find indelible and remain with me even after reading several more books since I finished this one. If you like short stories, I'd highly recommend this. If you like Lahiri's work generally, I'd also recommend it. There's a reason this one won the Pulitzer, y'all: it's very good.

One year ago, I was reading: Foundation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lowland

Three years ago, I was reading: The Kingmaker's Daughter

Four years ago, I was reading: The Leavers

Five years ago, I was reading: Dune

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