Like her novel The Namesake, Lahiri’s collection of short stories deals mainly with the experience of Indian immigrants in America. They often deal with a more specific experience: a young married couple moves to America shortly after being married so the husband can work at a university, and they have to navigate the new worlds of their marriage and the United States simultaneously. Being an Indian immigrant, or being the child of Indian immigrants, in America is clearly a subject close to Lahiri’s heart, and in the hands of a less skilled author, her stories about this experience would become repetitive. But Jhumpa Lahiri is a very, very skilled author, and each story in this collection looked at the same subject from a different perspective. This is multiple observations on a similar idea, and every one is beautiful and leaves you feeling like you’ve just had a really good sob: emptied-out, sad, but somehow fulfilled at the same time.
The writing is straightforward, and beautiful in its simplicity. In The Namesake, I was frequently irritated by her attempts at casual banter between characters. Luckily, there’s none of that here – Lahiri rarely has her characters speak, preferring introspection instead. The few conversations that do occur don’t attempt any witty banter, preferring to go right ahead and drown you in subtle tragedy, like this exchange from “Mrs. Sen’s” (it’s told from the perspective of Eliot, an eleven-year-old who spends every afternoon at the house of his Indian babysitter, and it was my favorite in the collection:
“Mrs. Sen took the aerogram from India out of her purse and studied the front and back. She unfolded it and read it to herself, sighing every now and then. When she had finished she gazed for some time at the swimmers.
‘My sister has had a baby girl. By the time I see her, depending if Mr. Sen gets his tenure, she will be three years old. Her own aunt will be a stranger. If we sit side by side on a train she will not know my face.’ She put away the letter, then placed a hand on Eliot’s head. ‘Do you miss your mother, Eliot, these afternoons with me?’
The thought had never occurred to him.
‘You must miss her. When I think of you, only a boy, separated from your mother for so much of the day, I am ashamed.’
‘I see her at night.’
‘When I was your age I was without knowing that one day I would be so far. You are wiser than that, Eliot. You already taste the way things must be.'”
Also, I love reading Lahiri when she writes about cooking. In fact, I want her to get her own cooking show, just so I can have more stuff like this:
“When friends dropped by, Shoba would throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes. …Shukumar had been going through their supplies steadily, preparing meals for the two of them, measuring out cupfuls of rice, defrosting bags of meat day after day. He combed through her cookbooks every afternoon, following her penciled instructions to use two teaspoons of ground coriander seeds instead of one, or red lentils instead of yellow. Each of the recipes was dated, telling the first time they had eaten the dish together. April 2, cauliflower with fennel. January 14, chicken with almonds and sultanas. He had no memory of eating those meals, and yet there they were, recorded in her neat proofreader’s hand.”
Verdict: four out of five stars