Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri – Book Review

51oM0M6QkhL._AA160_Acclaimed writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. Her first novel The Namesake was made into a movie of the same name. I have seen the movie and recommend it.

In her more recent collection of eight stories Unaccustomed Earth, Lhairi continues to explore the Bengali-immigrant experience. Her point of view is primarily that of the children of Bengali immigrants, chronicling the struggles they face to adapt to American culture. Caught between parent-imposed expectations and the pressure to fit into conflicting American mainstream values, the children carry a burden of guilt and secrecy.

Lahiri’s characters are not representative of all Bengali immigrants. She has transported well-educated Bengali men with arranged marriage wives to America’s northeastern seaboard. The men are professionals and academics in respected positions, while their wives are traditional Bengali homemakers having limited opportunities to realize a greater potential. But it is the children who must walk the line between parental expectations and the cultural differences confronting them in the outer world. As privileged children, they attend expensive boarding schools and Harvard. But academic achievements can’t protect them from the sense of uprooted-ness that dogs them along their paths. Inter-racial marriages, raising children non-traditionally, running away from Bengali identities, alcoholism and striving to please by succumbing to traditional marriages are some of the issues they contend with.

Lahiri’s New England settings are a striking counterbalance to the references to Bombay and Calcutta, interspersed with a broader global experience enjoyed by the second and third generation living abroad. These are stories of displaced persons who long for home, but cannot always decide where home is for them.

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