Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

One of the things that struck me about Unaccustomed Earth was how sad the stories all seemed. Though not really tragic, there seemed to be no happy endings in sight for any of these characters. I could barely finish “A Choice of Accommodations” – I could see the train wreck coming and I wanted desperately to derail it, to do something that would stop Amit from making the choices that were going to cause so much pain…and I realized that, sad or not, I was profoundly involved with these people. I did not feel like a bystander, I felt my heart breaking along with these characters.

There are strong themes of duty and obligation running through these stories. Parents deal with the difficulties of arranged marriages, adjusting to a new culture and children who seem more American than Bengali. Children are expected to live up to extremely high standards or cause their parents tremendous shame. They want to be truly American, to move away from the old-world traditions of the parents, yet they often seem to gravitate back, finding comfort in old ways. I found the same thread in Lahiri’s earlier book, The Namesake.

In “Only Goodness”, an older sister feels responsible for her brother’s troubles – she gives him his first beer, an act that later seems full of portent. He has a drinking problem, known to everyone around him, but his parents refuse to seek help for him to avoiding embarassing themselves before their Bengali friends. They cannot unbend enough to reach out to him, and his sister’s marriage is the final victim of his self-destructive behavior.

The last three stories of the book are grouped together as “Hema and Kaushik”, telling the stories of two people who meet as children, grow apart, and then cross paths 25 years later in Rome. The second story, “Year’s End”, was the most moving. It is the story of Kaushik’s young adulthood, coming home from college on Christmas break. His mother has recently died of cancer. His father has abruptly remarried on a trip to Calcutta, bringing home a very traditional bride and her two young daughters. Kaushik is still grieving for his mother and simply seeing his new stepmother handling his mother’s plates and silverware burns like acid. His father is oblivious; as long as Kaushik isn’t actively arguing with him, he seems content. The pain in the story was palpable and I found my heart breaking for this young man.

I didn’t realize when I picked up this book that Lahiri also wrote The Namesake, which I read for a book club last year and loved. I will definitely be looking for more of her work.

You can purchase your copy of Unaccustomed Earth on Amazon.com.

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