Interpreter of Maladies

Dear Jhumpa Lahiri,

It’s not you, it’s me. Let’s never forget what we had.

Cordially,

Jenny

One of the greatest pleasures of book blogging, for me, has been the reassurance that I am not alone. No matter what obscure thing I read, someone else has read it; no matter what classic I’ve neglected, someone else has been meaning to get around to it. My tastes don’t align with everyone else’s, but I generally find that whether I love a book or hate it, I have company.

Not this time. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and it just didn’t work for me. Having taken a quick survey of both professional reviewers and bloggers (and, of course, the Pulitzer committee), I seem to be the only person currently living on earth who didn’t like this book much.

The nine stories all take place in the US or India, and they have to do with the emotional and physical alienation that takes place when people no longer feel at home, either because of the uprooting effect of immigration or because of a more spiritual drift. A couple whose marriage has grown distant because of the stillbirth of their baby plays a game in the dark to reveal secrets whose intimacy is ultimately more than their fragility can bear. A mistress learns more than she wants to about the consequences of adultery on the family that’s left behind. A woman with epilepsy sets her mind on marriage, and instead reaps rejection, until she finds a cure for her loneliness. The stories are deftly done; there aren’t any extraneous frills. These people are flying apart at the speed of sound, and none of them can hear or touch each other.

The problem for me was that I wasn’t much impressed or moved by the stories. Most of them felt like something I’d read before (like in M.G. Vassanji’s work, for instance, dealing with cross-cultural issues of alienation.) I often have difficulty entering into modern literary fiction, with its slice-of-life everyday-epiphany style, and that might have been part of the problem here. It all just felt tired to me, with no real drive behind it. The prose was clean and simple, and it didn’t get in its own way, but I didn’t find it especially moving or elegant. (By “elegant” I don’t mean that it had to have fancy stylistic flourishes to please me, but I didn’t find either the stories or the writing itself particularly original or interesting.)

My favorite story in the collection was “This Blessed House.” It shows a newly-married couple, the conservative Sanjeev and the whimsical, ebullient Twinkle. As they move in to their new house, Twinkle makes one discovery after another of religious kitsch from the previous owners: posters of Jesus, religious snow globes, that sort of thing. Sanjeev is appalled; Twinkle is charmed, and the tangle of misunderstanding grows deeper. This story almost made it for me. There was so much possibility in it, so many cultural problems ready to spill out. But not quite. The story remained superficial, and we were told instead of shown how Sanjeev decided to feel at the end.

Here’s the thing: it’s obviously me. When the consensus is so clear that this is a stunning book, and it’s award-winning, and every single review is positive, then it’s me. You should read it! I’m sure you’ll like it.

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34 Responses to Interpreter of Maladies

  1. chasing bawa says:

    I too read this book after hearing so much about it but I really liked it. That isn’t to say that I liked every single story and, as you said, there were echoes of other writers and stories in Lahiri’s tales. But I find with short story collections that it’s often a mixed bag. My favourite tale was the one about Mrs. Sen and her driving lessons.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right that story collections are often mixed successes. This one just didn’t have any big hits for me. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t like any of them above “meh.”

  2. I love this author who had worked at my library when she was in high school…..LOL very talented.

  3. Kailana says:

    I read three books this month that other people simply love, but I just couldn’t get into. I felt a bit bad, but on the other hand, I know it is just me and not the books themselves because so many people do like them…

  4. I loved some of the stories (This Blessed House was one of them) but not all of them. Short story collections are tough — I agree, they’re usually a mixed bag. I think I enjoyed The Namesake more simply because it was a full novel — I enjoyed getting to know the characters better. I wish some of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies had been expanded into full novels.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a good point, that perhaps some of the stories would have been better off expanded. There was a sense of incompleteness to some of them for me. I might try The Namesake for that reason alone.

  5. Aarti says:

    Haha- I liked this book but I had this same reaction to The Namesake. I did not like that book much at all! (And, being Indian, I feel like anyone who has ever read The Namesake TELLS me that they have read The Namesake and then looks at me as though they fully understand Life as an Indian in America.)

  6. Steph says:

    I haven’t read this collection, so I can’t get all indignant about you not liking it… but what I can say is that part of why I haven’t read this collection is because I read Lahiri’s second collection of stories a few years back and was SUPER underwhelmed by them. Like, I thought Lahiri was a fine writer, but her stories seemed so uninspired and repetitive and didn’t say anything interesting or new to me. So I do think I see where you’re coming from and I think that I probably wouldn’t care for this collection very much!

  7. When the consensus is so clear that this is a stunning book, and it’s award-winning, and every single review is positive, then it’s me.

    Aw, don’t say that! Your opinion is 100% valid, even if it is unpopular.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, my opinion (“I didn’t like this book”) is a valid statement of how I felt about the book. But an opinion like “This isn’t a good book” might not be. Just because, for instance, I didn’t like The Great Gatsby in high school doesn’t make it a bad book, and consensus of opinion made me re-read it later (and incidentally love it.) So I guess popularity sometimes matters!

  8. Alex says:

    Sorry to hear you didn’t like it. It’s been on my TBR for AGES. Nothing like a bad-ish review to spark my curiosity ;)

  9. I read this collection and liked it but didn’t love it. I did, however, love her only novel, The Namesake, and perhaps you’d fare better with it too.

    My favourite story from The Interpreter of Maladies was “A Temporary Matter”, which I thought dealt with the limitations of communication very well.

    • Jenny says:

      See, I thought “A Temporary Matter” was just okay. I agree it was one of the better stories in the collection, but it felt a little gimmicky to me, and a little tired. Again! Just me!

  10. Mel u says:

    “One of the greatest pleasures of book blogging, for me, has been the reassurance that I am not alone”-I agree so much with this-I read one of her stories not long ago-dailylit.com had one online-I really like it and hope to get to the full collection soon-I enjoyed your post very much

  11. Emily says:

    Haha, I know the feeling, Jenny. One feels, “How could so many people have bad taste?” :-)

    If it makes you feel any better my mother-in-law disliked this book as well, for (as I recall) similar reasons to yours – the stories just felt a little tired and generic to her.

  12. Rebecca Reid says:

    I read this in my early early days of blogging. I wonder what I’ll think when I reread it!

    • Jenny says:

      I read your review as part of my informal survey! If you do reread it, I’ll be interested to see what you think the second time around.

  13. Nicola says:

    Now I don’t feel so guilty about being the only person who can’t stand Barbara Pym!

    Sometimes we just have to say ‘not my cup of tea’ and move on …

    • Jenny says:

      You can’t be the ONLY person who doesn’t like Barbara Pym…? Oh, well, perhaps you are. :) And yes, sometimes it’s best just to give up!

  14. Jenny says:

    Might you perhaps enjoy her novel more? I haven’t read anything by her so far, but I tend to enjoy full-length books more than short stories. And slice-of-life stories not at all.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I can like slice-of-life fiction if there’s something else, something original, a twist, or wonderful writing. By itself it just doesn’t grab me much. That might be the problem here. It was solid enough, it just didn’t rise above the OK level. But maybe a novel would give her space to expand.

  15. Teresa says:

    I did enjoy The Namesake quite a lot, but I was surprised to learn after I read it that Lahiri had won a Pulitzer. For me, it fell in the good solid read category, but not the super-artful and original category. I had assumed (and possibly others had told me) that she really shines in the short story format, so I had assumed her stories are more original and exciting. But maybe not. I have An Unaccustomed Earth and will give it a try one day. (I do think I like the everyday-epiphany slice-of-life lit fic more than you do, Jenny.)

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I think you do, too — though as I said to Other Jenny, I can love it if there’s something else wonderful about it, like wonderful writing or an original character or story element. I can think of many such examples. Most contemporary lit fic seems very static to me, though, and this did as well.

  16. mohit says:

    Must be an enjoyable read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by “to read” list.

  17. Sverige says:

    I enjoyed reading this wonderfully put-together book. Each family’s story captivated a unique perspective on Indian immigrants. In addition, Lahiri’s writing style beautifully weaves all these characters into a common journey of self identity and preservation of culture.

  18. Gino says:

    I just read most of these stories. I agree with everything you said except this: It is not You. Despite her talents, her stories are, to use words others here have used, uninspired, repetitive, superficial & lack any real drive. I would say that people who ultimately praise this book are easily satisfied, they are wholly into “process” & undemanding of “results”, or they just find these stories an easy way to look into some “exotic” slice of society without having to think much.

    Now, I certainly did not dislike the stories. In fact, many of them I highly enjoyed initially, but as they progressed, I found little little real character motivation other than that these people like to be alienated & alienating. Then the stories ended, and I had to switch my “I like this.” response to “Didn’t like it much, interesting but lazy.”

    2 other points:
    Like you, I enjoyed her clean writing style, BUT did anyone else notice that she often places her modifying clauses poorly? Often. It was astounding. Here is one egregious example: “… a girl who read books without pictures on their covers, and refused to prepare any food for Eliot containing meat.” What? Does Eliot contain meat? I guess he does. Note she didn’t write “a girl who read books on their covers without pictures. There a half-dozen such misplaced clauses that made me stop and ask “Did she really write that?”
    A tangential problem: The stories are often about a woman & a man. The stories are written by a woman. For some reason, she decided to often write from the man’s viewpoint. The result is that in stories about alienation, she often points to the man as the source of alienation, while the woman skates by freely. It is quite common for female authors to implicitly blame men for the problems their female characters face and the lousy things they do, but at least they usually do it from the woman’s view. One example is the wife saying “I hate you.” in “Blessed House”. Who would say that unless pushed very far and unless he/she has already crossed their Rubicon? Who? Further, how could it be totally unexplored in the story? How? It is a critical fault in a story that I originally enjoyed quite a bit.

    So, remember, it isn’t YOU. There is nothing wrong with feeling dissatisfied when reading someone’s rough draft.

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t agree with you about the misplaced modifiers. “Books without pictures on their covers” is perfect English, whereas “Books on their covers without pictures” is essentially gibberish. It’s the same with the “…containing meat” example. I really can’t say that Lahiri’s stories are a rough draft; they’re obviously well-written. I just didn’t see them as quite as satisfying or as interesting as most people seem to. Perhaps I ought to read her novel; many people really liked The Namesake better than these stories.

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