I have been absolutely blown away by Jhumpa Lahiri's work. She is a mainstream fiction writer who writes predominantly about immigration and assimilation in the Indian/Bengali community, and who writes superbly and elegantly. I read Interpreter of Maladies
(short stories - her first book, and won the Pulitzer; this is what we're dealing with!) first, and The Namesake
(novel) after. I had varying reactions to the stories, but almost all of them moved me. The first and last stories are, I think, the strongest emotionally, and also complement each other nicely. The Namesake
is almost like an expansion of and sequel to the last story in Interpreter
: it chronicles an Indian couple as they move to the US after an arranged marriage and have children, and follows the oldest child, a son, as he grows up and takes his place in the world. It is about the process of immigration and assimilation. It is about expectations and rebellion, and how both can lead to unfortunate results. It is about growing up. It is about names, and families, and love. (And yes, sarahtales
, I thought of you. No idea whether you even read this kind of book, but if you do, I think you will like it.If not, you won't.) Warning, it is a slow book, with very little in the way of plotting.
I have a special tie to these books because my parents, of course, are immigrants, who had basically an arranged marriage, and a lot of the things she writes about are applicable to my parents as well: how puzzling it must be to try to adapt to a completely new culture; how courageous it is to leave everything and everyone you know and care about for a new life that, as like as not, will start off in hardship (it certainly did for my parents); how painful it is to see the gulf between you and your children, because you have brought them up in this new world so that they don't understand you or where you came from; how heartbreaking it must be to see your children embrace all the things about the new culture that you wanted them to reject, but how proud you are of them too, as they easily move through a world that still, sometimes, baffles you. It made me think in a different way about my parents (it's always quite wonderful when a book turns sideways the way one thinks about the world), and what they went through, and how incredibly courageous they were and are, and how much they must love us, to encourage us to assimilate the way that they have. (They are really wonderful. My parents have never had any problem with us having friendships, dating, or marrying outside our race/culture, and indeed brought us up more American than anything else on purpose
, and I cannot fathom what degree of love that must take, to bring up your kid in such a way that you know she will be half a stranger to you, and that your grandkids will be even further away-- because you want what will be best for them.)
Now, so that this isn't all sappy: I hated Mouse. She was really, incredibly lame. I was totally all, "Get a life!" I understand the point Lahiri was trying to make, but really, did she have to do it via such a completely lame character? (After talking about this with K, I've decided the problem might be mine: I don't deal well with characters' infidelity unless they have a good reason, which Mouse manifestly does not have.)
This is absolutely the best thing I have read this year, in what has been a very strong year for books so far. I don't know if people who don't have strong ties to this immigrant experience will be quite so impressed. It is also true that she doesn't seem to write about anything else but
the immigrant experience, so although I continually get new things out of her writing, I could imagine someone else getting kind of bored with it.