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