Unaccustomed Earth

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Hardcover, 2008

Call number




Knopf (2008), 352 pages


From the internationally best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a superbly crafted new work of fiction: eight stories--longer and more emotionally complex than any she has yet written--that take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand as they enter the lives of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. In the stunning title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father, who carefully tends the earth of her garden, where he and his grandson form a special bond. But he's harboring a secret from his daughter, a love affair he's keeping all to himself. In "A choice of accommodations," a husband's attempt to turn an old friend's wedding into a romantic getaway weekend with his wife takes a dark, revealing turn as the party lasts deep into the night. In "Only goodness," a sister eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish, and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in "Hema and Kaushik," a trio of linked stories--a luminous, intensely compelling elegy of life, death, love, and fate--we follow the lives of a girl and boy who, one winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome.… (more)

Media reviews

There is much cultural news in these precisely observed studies of modern-day Bengali-Americans — many of them Ivy-league strivers ensconced in prosperous suburbs who can’t quite overcome the tug of traditions nurtured in Calcutta. With quiet artistry and tender sympathy, Lahiri creates an
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impressive range of vivid characters — young and old, male and female, self-knowing and self-deluding — in engrossing stories that replenish the classic themes of domestic realism: loneliness, estrangement and family discord.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Jhumpa Lahiri's first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize. After writing a full-length novel (The Namesake), Lahiri has returned with a second short story collection. Unaccustomed Earth is comprised of 5 short stories and a novella. And it is absolutely
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Most of the stories are set in the US, and the Indian immigrant characters are often in relationship with white Americans. Each one had strong emotional impact. The title story was one of the most moving. In it, an Indian widower visits his adult daughter, who lives in Seattle. He chooses not to tell her that he has found a new partner, and she is afraid he plans to move in with her and her young family. The man's love for his small grandson is very touching; his love for her is demonstrated indirectly through a garden he creates during his visit. Through small day-to-day acts, he shows his daughter a side of him that was not visible while she was growing up.

The novella, Hema and Kaushik, takes place over three separate time periods and follows an Indian immigrant boy and girl from the time they meet as children, through young adulthood, and into middle age. Lahiri is expert at conveying the loss and emptiness deep within each character, and building the reader's commitment to these characters in a very short number of pages.

I intentionally apprpoached this work one story at a time, reading during my lunch hour and savoring each story over the next 24 hours. When the novella -- and the entire book -- came to an end, all I could do was take a very deep breath and marvel at Lahiri's talent. Unaccustomed Earth is the most delicious fiction I have read in a very long time; a must-read.
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LibraryThing member Cait86
"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed
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- Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Custom-House"

This quotation by Nathaniel Hawthorne graces the first page of Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and is one of the ideas that unites the collection of eight short stories. Lahiri does not always seem to agree with Hawthorne's statement; though her characters are often looking for new places to live, new definitions of the word "home," this movement does not, as Hawthorne believes, cause human nature to flourish. Instead her characters live static, unfulfilled lives, and struggle to express themselves to the people they love.

Lahiri's stories are not about grand adventures or horrible tragedies; instead, she writes about domestic life, and the bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives. Each story in Unaccustomed Earth contains characters of Indian descent who have immigrated to the US, and so the depiction of Indian culture is extrememly vivid. Lahiri writes beautifully. Her prose is descriptive and complex, and the emotions of her characters shine through as though they were actual people in your life.

In general, I love short stories, and Lahiri is exceptionally skilled with this genre. Each narrative is a complete story, and can stand on its own, yet always left me wanting more. The stories contain enough similarities that they form a unified collection; however, these similarities never detracted from the individual stories. Though all alike, they are also distinct. The last three stories contain the same two characters, and could be read as a novella on their own. They are, in my opinion, the strongest stories in the book - though all eight narratives are wonderful.

I went looking for Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies yesterday after reading a favourable review of it here on LT. Alas, my book store did not have it in stock, so I picked up Unaccustomed Earth instead. This proved to be a blessing, as Unaccustomed Earth was a beautiful read that was perfectly suited to my needs yesterday. It was a satisfying way to spend a few hours, and I will be sure to read the rest of Lahiri's work in the future.
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LibraryThing member Jenners26
When I finished the first story in this collection, I knew I was in the hands of a master short story writer. In just 55 or so pages, Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of Ruma's father visiting her new home in Seattle for the first time. But in the course of those 55 pages, I felt like I received a
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fully realized view into Ruma and her father's past, present and future. I was stunned how Jhumpa Lahiri was able to fit so much into the story—Ruma's relationship with her mother and her grief for her unexpected death, the state of Ruma's marriage to her husband Adam, her father's new relationship with a woman, the family's dynamics growing up, the loneliness of being a mother in a strange new city. Yet the story never felt rushed, forced or jumbled; it unfolds naturally and eloquently. Each little detail is presented when it should be and gives you another piece to Ruma and her father. At the end, each little piece becomes part of a fully-formed mosaic—complete, colorful, shining and whole.

And Jhumpa Lahiri's skill continued with the rest of the stories. Each one had the same sense of wholeness and completeness to it. At the end of each story, I felt full and satisfied—never wanting more, never needing more. Each story was a perfect fully formed pearl.

The book itself is divided into two parts. Part One has five separate "stand alone" stories. Part Two, which is called "Hema and Kaushik," has three stories—one for Hema, one for Kaushik, and one that brings them together.

Although each story has its own feel and characters, Lahiri returns to and touches on similar themes in each story that tie the collection together as a whole. The experience of being an immigrant and coming from India to America is a common thread (specifically, a Bengali Indian). Marriage—arranged marriages vs. "chosen" marriages—is a theme that runs throughout each story. The "Americanization" of Indian children and parents is yet another recurring thread. In addition, Lahiri uses Cambridge, Massachusetts as the setting for several of the stories.

Yet even though you might accurately call this collection "an examination of the Indian immigrant experience," the truths and emotions of these characters are universal. I felt connected to each of Lahiri's characters. I recognized facets of my life in their lives. I heard my thoughts in their thoughts. I saw myself reflected in them. Although our culture, upbringing, location and families might be different, Jhumpa Lahiri's characters spoke to me and it rang true.

The story that most affected me was the third Hema and Kaushik story, "Going Ashore." This was a masterful piece of storytelling, and the ending just wrenched my heart out. The very last sentence of the story is so simple and stark yet reading it brought tears to my eyes, and I felt my heart ache a little bit.

If you have prejudices against short stories like I did, do yourself a favor and read Unaccustomed Earth. To me, these stories are perfect examples of what you can do with the short story form. I know that they will be the standard by which I judge all other short story collections in the future—and the bar has been set exceedingly high.
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LibraryThing member bnbooklady
One of the most beautiful, breathtaking books I have ever read. I'm so happy to see Ms. Lahiri return to the short story format. Though the main characters are Indian, the themes of these stories are undeniably universal, as we can all relate to the search for identity in a new place and the
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transition in relationships with the passage of time. I cannot find words adequate to describe the depth and breadth of these pieces. Simply amazing.
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LibraryThing member karenmerguerian
I don't give very many books a five star rating. This collection is like a set of jewels, the stories are Chekhovian, they are filled with characters who say little and often do little, but every detail speaks volumes. They are about relationships, about what is not said, what is not acknowledged,
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what almost but does not happen. They are about how we live with the consequences of our mistakes, about how we accustom ourselves to death, the sometimes tiny but magnanimous gestures we make to those we love. Lahiri expresses what it's like to be a child and have glimpses into the truths that adults themselves deny, about what it's like to be a widow and a widower, a lover unrequited and one whose love is returned. If you like Sue Miller, or even Nabakov, perhaps, and the way their plots "resolve" and their characters come to equilibrium, you will like these.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Lahiri's lyric prose is built from attention to detail and emotion, revolving around immigration and coming-of-age stories that ring true with readers across cultures. The first part of this novel will ring familiar to readers already accustomed to Lahiri's work, and may even come across as
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repetitive or less striking. Yet, in the second part of this collection, all of her beauty and power strikes through.

In the first part, each story is separate, the characters reminiscent of those she explored in Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection. The stories are lovely in and of themselves...but they are not so unique or powerful, maybe particularly to readers already familiar with her work since these stories pursue the same themes already so often explored in her works.

Yet, the second part of this collection is a trio of linked stories which are as unique, powerful, and disarming as anything else she has written. I admit: in the first portion of this work, I wasn't bored...but I wasn't so sure I'd seek her work out in the future. In the second portion, I couldn't bring myself to put the work down. As when I first discovered her work, her characters and her prose disarmed me and brought me near to tears, striking as anything I've read in recent years.

Read the first part for her lovely attention to detail, to characters, to emotion, and to polished writing. Read the second part for her unique power, and for what we look for in fiction with each story we escape to.

Recommended, absolutely.
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LibraryThing member shabacus
These are beautiful stories, but they are not happy stories. The use of language is amazing, metaphors woven effortlessly into the text of the story, narrators (either in the first or third person) who have true voices, characters that jump out at the page.

My biggest criticism is the depressing
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sameness of the themes--regret, sadness, missed opportunities, betrayal, unrequited longing. The world seen through Lahiri's eyes is a bleak and hopeless one. These thematic elements certainly provided a sense of unity to the stories in the collection, but they did not improve my appreciation of them.

Overall, this is a collection I'm glad to have read, but not one that I'd read, as I did, on a rainy day.
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LibraryThing member andreablythe
Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of stories explore the ways we either connect, or, more often than not, fail to connect to the people in our lives. Her stories are on the long side, more novellas or novlettes than short stories, which has given her space to more fully explore the daily space of the
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familial (and occasionally friend) relationships she is presenting. The stories are pondering, almost slow, and often melancholy, but each one is beautifully written.
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LibraryThing member Pummzie
Jhumpa Lahiri has got married and had two children since her first collection of short stories and the evidence is all over the second collection of stories. While the first focussed very much on emigres, the lens seems to have shifted, for the most part, to the first generation, their
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relationships and their children. As an first generation British-Indian, her stories tend to speak to me like a conversation between old friends. It's familiar ground but elegantly expressed and thoughtfully put across, respectful but unabashed and clear-eyed. Her first collection accompanied me on my honeymoon, the second, on a recent holiday a few years on. We have both learnt a few things in the interim but like an older sister, she is always a few steps ahead. I look forward to what she has to share next.
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LibraryThing member DubaiReader
A good book group read.

I read this book for a book group that I was leading. We had not realised that they were short stories when the book was recommended so I was a bit concerened how it would fit into a book group setting. I need not have worried, the discussion was enthusiastic and varied, and
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everyone felt that it was a four / five star collection. The only minor problem was recalling the details of all the individual stories as we worked our way though, but we helped each other out here and found that between us we could fill in most of the details.

The theme of displacement was one we could all relate to, being ex-pats from around the world. Also the idea of making friends with people from all walks of life, with just our nationality in common. There was, however, a feeling that some of the characters lacked definition, hence the four, rather than five star rating.

Personally I favoured the triad of interconnected stories at the end. Here we had a chance to get to know the characters a little better and the ending was memorable - something that some of the other stories lacked.
I'm looking forward to reading Namesake, Ms Lahiri's only full length novel. Having sampled her short stories I'm keen to see how she developes her characters in this medium.

Recommended, especially for lovers of short stories.
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LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
I adored this collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. At the writing of this review, I have not yet read her other works but am looking forward to doing so.

Jhumpa Lahiri is Indian-American; more specifically from a Bengali background. She draws from this background as a basis for most of her
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short stories. Most of the characters in her stories– in this book, anyway– are Bengalis that have moved to America, or at the very least are Indian.

This book consists of two parts.

Part One consists of the five following stories:

“Unaccustomed Earth” : A young mother hopes that her widowed father will move in with her and her growing family; but finds out he does not want to, and the reason why.

“Hell-Heaven”: A young girl observes the relationship between her parents and a family friend, and comes to realize that her mother was actually in love with the family friend for many years.

“A Choice of Accommodations”: A man attends the wedding of a girl he grew up with and adored. The man’s wife also attends the wedding with him.

“Only Goodness”: About a woman dealing with her alcoholic brother and coming to grips with how, and why, he became that way.

“Nobody’s Business”: About two roommates, male and female; and what happens when one is involved in an unhealthy relationship.

Part Two : Hema and Kaushik

“Once in a Lifetime”

“Year’s End”

“Going Ashore”

Part Two, above, actually seems more like a novella to me. It’s about Hema and Kaushik and was my favorite section of the book. Their characters and their story really stayed with me, and I actually went right back and re-read Part Two after finishing it.

Hema and Kaushik were sort-of childhood friends: Hema’s parents allowed Kaushik and his parents to stay at their house for a length of time while the latter were looking for a house to buy and move in. After Kaushik and his parents move out, the two children lose touch over time. Eventually, Hema and Kaushik meet again by chance, when they are adults and have had a lot of life experiences behind them.

The first part is told by Hema’s point of view. The second part is then told by Kaushik’s point of view. The last part is narrated objectively–that is, by neither of them. Until the very last few paragraphs, when it is Hema telling the story. The ending came somewhat as a shock to me.

Here is a passage, from when Hema and Kaushik have run into each other again after all those years:

“After lunch he drove her back, inviting her to his place, in a quiet neighborhood where laundry hung between apricot-colored houses and old men sat in folding chairs on the streets. The men watched, silently, as Kaushik unlocked the bolts and Hema waited at his side. It was unquestioned that they would not part yet, unquestioned that though they had not seen or thought of each other in decades, not sought each other out, something precious had been stumbled upon, a new-born connection that could not be left unattended, that demanded every particle of their care”.

I strongly recommend that you give this short story collection a try!
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
There has already been a plethora of praise heaped on Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction, and rightly so. I suspect that even years from now she will be recognized as the writer who most eloquently depicted the India-to-America immigrant experience. And the stories in her third book, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH,
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continue to document that phenomenon. Her emigrant characters ring true as fully realized human beings trying their best to make lives in a new and strange culture. And the first generation children of those people are equally challenged, torn between being faithful to the Indian traditions their parents try to instill in them and the desire to become fully American.

My only problem with this book - and I should emphasize that it is MY problem - is that the characters from the eight stories herein began to run together and I found myself paging back and forth trying to figure out if I'd seen this character in a previous piece. And indeed, in the second part of the book, the viewpoints do shift between Hema and Kaushik, whose paths in life intersect periodically. I think perhaps the obvious answer to MY problem would have been to simply slow down and take some timeouts between stories. Which posed another problem: I couldn't wait to see what the next story would bring.

But what the hell. Lahiri is simply a story teller of the first order, i.e. damn good. I'm looking forward now to reading her first book of stories, the one that got her the Pulitzer, and also the new novel, THE LOWLAND. This book? Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories - Unaccustomed Earth - reveals more about the relationships between its multi-faceted characters than first appears. Each story seems initially simple and then evolves into a wonderful look at how relationships between husband/wife, brother/sister,
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girlfriend/boyfriend, and parent/child evolve over time.

In the title story, a young Bengali woman named Ruma relocates to Seattle with her American husband and son as they look forward to the birth of their second child. A visit from Ruma’s father stirs memories of her deceased mother, and forces her to consider her duty as daughter to invite her father to live with her.

Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to. It would mean an end to the family she’d created on her own: herself and Adam and Akash, and the second child that would come in January, conceived just before the move. - from Unaccustomed Earth, page 7 -

But Ruma is unaware that her father has begun to move forward after the loss of his wife, and treasures his new found independence.

He stared out the window at a shelf of clouds that was like miles and miles of densely packed snow one could walk across. The sight filled him with peace; this was his life now, the ability to do as he pleased, the responsibility of his family absent just as all else was absent from the unmolested vision of the clouds. - from Unaccustomed Earth, page 8 -

During his visit, Ruma’s father connects unexpectedly with his grandson, and plants a garden for Ruma. The visit unfolds in an unpredictable way, bringing a deeper understanding of both father and daughter; and opening a door to a new relationship.

This simple first story, rich in detail and expertly crafted, introduces the stories to come with the common theme of growing and changing relationships over time and how these changed relationships accommodate, or not, the needs of the characters. Each story involves a Bengali family or individual who has immigrated to America. In some stories, the characters are drawn back to India; in others they find a place for themselves in America; in still others, they are drawn to seek their future far from either place. The stories are also about loss - the loss of innocence, or intimacy, or love, or even life itself.

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, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible. - from Unaccustomed Earth, page 46 -

The final three stories of the collection - interconnected by character - are actually more of a novella. In Once in a Lifetime, Hema recollects her childhood in Massachusetts when she meets Kaushik, the son of her parent’s close friends. Hema speaks directly to Kaushik in the narration, a technique which while unsettling, serves to bind the two characters together. The second story titled Year’s End, picks up the narration years later from Kaushik’s point of view as he deals with his father’s second marriage after the untimely death of Kaushik’s mother. In the final story titled Coming Ashore, Hema and Kaushik meet unexpectedly in Rome only weeks before Hema is to become married via an arranged marriage in India. These stories once again emphasize the growth of the characters and how this growth impacts and changes their relationship to each other. Lahiri also examines the cultural conflict between America and India as it reflects on the characters’ decisions.

Lahiri is a gifted storyteller, one who writes effortlessly and ties together complex themes with ease. Her writing is often simple, yet beautifully constructed with rich detail and in-depth characterizations. Readers who might shy away from short stories will find themselves delighted with Lahiri’s ability to make them feel connected to her characters. She compacts their lives in such a way that the reader feels as though they have spent a longer time with them - feeling their joys, sadness, regrets and hopes in rare depth.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member KRM35
Devestating. Beautiful. Stark. Rich. Words don't do justice to the haunting beatuy of these stories and their impact on the reader. I never do this but without hesitation I would tell anyone to read this book!
LibraryThing member ZufarIsmailZeid
I did not realise at first that this was a collection of short stories, so after I finished the first part and moved on to the other, I was a bit confused. To be honest, that's the only thing I could actually point out in a pseudo-negative (Due to the mistake being largely on my part) manner.

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book is a masterpiece, and it hit me quite hard because as a person living away from home, all her words echoed true. The difficulty of looking for a place to call home in a foreign land, I believe the author has highlighted that point magnificently. Her skill in breathing life into mere words is phenomenal, by the end of the book, I felt a close bond forming between the fictional characters and myself.

The one thing I appreciate most is how pain is ever present in life. In Hema and Kaushik, especially, it was an amazing experience to just sit back and read it. In my opinion, Jhumpa Lahiri has definitely reached the point where she could be equal to the likes of Rushdie and Vikram Seth.
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LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Review for the unabridged audio version.

I originally read this book for a book group that I was leading. We had not realised that they were short stories when the book was recommended so I was a bit concerened how it would fit into a book group setting. I need not have worried, the discussion was
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enthusiastic and varied, and everyone felt that it was a four / five star collection. The only minor problem was recalling the details of all the individual stories as we worked our way though, but we helped each other out here and found that between us we could fill in most of the details.

The theme of displacement was one we could all relate to, being ex-pats from around the world. Also the idea of making friends with people from all walks of life, with just our nationality in common. There was, however, a feeling that some of the characters lacked definition, hence the four, rather than five star rating.

Personally I favoured the triad of interconnected stories at the end. Here we had a chance to get to know the characters a little better and the ending was memorable - something that some of the other stories lacked.

Hearing the stories read by Sarita Choudhury and Ajay Naidu, was enjoyable, but I don't think I got as much out of them the second time around. 4 stars for the book, 3.5 for the audio version.
Recommended for lovers of short stories.
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LibraryThing member Lzuckerm
Writers take note: this exquisite collection offers a master class in how to integrate experience and description into story. The writing is not showy in an obvious way, but quietly, relentlessly efficient, with every word serving the story. Thoughts, emotions, memories and regrets become the stuff
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of intense drama, as Lahiri takes us effortlessly through time and space and into the secrets of the human heart.
Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member lssian
Her writing style is deceptively simple. It is straightforward but also very rich. While "The Third and Final Continent" is probably still my favorite of her stories, this volume is consistently better than Interpreter of Maladies. I look forward to her future work.
LibraryThing member Sweet_Bee
Delicious writing, rich in detail and characters. I finished regretfully wishing the author had written more. I can imagine the group for four in Part Two being a complete novel adaptable to film as easily as "The Namesake" and as wonderfully compelling as a portrait of people living in two cultures
LibraryThing member Clara53
Short stories - very vivid writing, totally true to life, hard to put down.
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
Havent read any fiction this good in a very long time. The stories connect and grow with each other. At one point, a short burst of Lahiri's lapidary prose about a photojournalist brought back an unexpected rush of memories that left me trembling. No other writer, including Didion writing about a
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similar subject in Salvador, has been that powerful for me. This book has my highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member JGoto
Once again, Jhumpa Lahiri does not disappoint. The gentle prose in these short stories about people with ties to both Bengali and American cultures creates complex characters that leave a lasting impression with the reader.
LibraryThing member AzureMountain
Her stories are intricately woven and full of the sort of detail that puts you right into their living rooms, sharing cups of tea. I enjoyed all of the stories in the book.
LibraryThing member jeniferbal
I set high expectations for this book, since Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors, and I was not disappointed. This book is not about Bengali-Americans. It is about all Americans and, I conjecture, about all people. Lahiri has an uncanny ability to display daily emotions; emotions so small
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yet so significant that they shape our lives without our even knowing it. The fact that I, a white Californian 30 something can relate to her characters, from such an entirely different background than my own, show the omniscience of Lahiri's stories.
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LibraryThing member sydamy
Short stories, elegantly written, depicting the lives of Bengali Indian immigrants in the US. Their children becoming American and struggling with the old world values of parents. I don't usually read short stories but these were so beautiful and deep, they felt like any could have been a complete
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