The Sunday Salon- On Unaccustomed Earth

It’s a busy morning here at my home in southwest Florida.  I’m preparing Sunday lunch for six, and given the location, we’re eating Mexicali style, with taco salad, seven layer bean dip, and of course margarita’s.  But all is under control in the kitchen, the table on the lanai is set with festive plasticware, and there’s time to sit and visit.  Let’s try one of these mango margarita’s shall we, just to make sure they taste allright (winks). 

Welcome to Sunday Salon, the tropical edition.

I bought myself a present the other day…Unaccustomed Earth, the latest collection of short stories by Jhunpa Lahiri.   Of all the bookstacks I own, you will find only one other short story collection…Interpreter of Maladies,by Jhumpa Lahriri.  Any guesses about my favorite short story author?  And remember when I didn’t even care for short stories?

i read the title story immediately, and it was absolutely gorgeous.  It lingered in my mind all day, lingered so powerfully that I occasionally picked the book up as I passed by just to dip in and re-read a paragraph or a page.

While her father was in the shower, she made tea.  It was a ritual she liked, a formal recognition of the day turning into evening in spite of the sun not setting.  When she was on her own, these hours passed arbitrarily.  She was grateful for the opportunity to sit on the porch with her father, with the teapot and the bowl of salted cashews and the plate of Nice biscuits, looking at the lake and listening to the vast breeze work its way through the treetops, a grander version of the way Akash used to sigh when he was a baby, full of contentment, in the depths of sleep.  The leaves flickered as if with internal light, shivering though the air was not cold.  Akash was asleep, exhausted from playing outdoors all day, and the house was filled with silence.

Unaccustomed Earth tells the story of Ruma, a young mother in a new city. Her father comes to visit, his first visit since the death of Ruma’s mother and he’s keeping a secret from Ruma – he’s become involved with another woman.  Meanwhile, Ruma struggles to find her equilibrium in this new life, trying to reach out to her father, yet not quite knowing how.  It’s just an equisite story, exploring the connection between parent and child on several levels, and the process of taking root in new ground both emotionally and physically.

Every story in this collection is a masterpiece.  As much as I loved The Namesake, Lahiri’s novel, she is an absolute master of the short story, and I can see why she returned to the genre for her second book.  She may well be this generation’s Alice Munroe, the writer who makes a name for herself with an entire oeuvre of short stories.  With this collection (as with Interpreter of Maladies) I never for a second felt the sense of incompleteness short stories sometimes lend.  Her characters are so complex, her prose so dense and delectable, the reader feels as if they are immersed in a full length novel.

But by far the most riveting of all are the three linked stories that make up Part II of the book.  In Hema and Kaushik, we follow the fates of two  people who first meet as children when their parents share a house one winter.  Their lives separate and intersect in unusual and occasionally painful ways, until destiny brings them together one last time. 

From the moment they arrived together at Paola and Edo’s, it was assumed, by the other guests, that they were old friends.  One of the guests had even assumed they were lovers, asking how long they had been together, how they had met.  “Our parents,” Kaushik had said lightly, but Hema thought back, saddened by those two simple words.  She was aware that he had not corrected the guest’s assumption.  Aware, too, of the way he looked at her across the table during lunch, surprised by the allure that had come to her late.  He looked the same to her, that was the astonishing thing.  The sharp faced boy who had stepped reluctantly into her parents home.  Only the eyes appeared tired, the skin surrounding them now darker, faintly bruised.  She still remembered her first impression of him…remembered the ridiculous attraction she had felt that night when she was thirteen years old, and that she had so secretly nurtured during the weeks they lived together.  It was as if no time had passed.

Hema and Kaushik is a brilliant elegy to life and to love, to family relationships and the power of fate, and the ways they interact.  It could easily stand alone as a poignant and perfect novella.

As in Interpreter of Maladies, all Lahiri’s characters have the common thread of nationality to bind them.  But their ethnicity is not necessarily the “unaccustomed earth” to which the title refers.  Most of them are traversing new emotional territory, much of it regarding loss – of a parent, a partner, an ideal.  Relationships are explored in painstaking detail, as in “Only Goodness,” where an older sister tries her best to provide her younger brother with “the perfect childhood,” and is so bitterly disappointed when his alcoholism prevents them from having the adult relationship she desires.

 Lahiri chose a quotation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s as the epigraph for this collection: “Human nature will not flourish…if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.  My children…shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”  This proves to be the perfect metaphor for each of Lahiri’s characters, in a volume of elegant, emotionally exquisite stories.

Oh, there goes the bell…time for lunch.  Enjoy your Sunday reading~I’ll pop in on you all later!

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19 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon- On Unaccustomed Earth

  1. ….by the way brunch sounds yummy.

    I am not a fan of short stories. When I read that you didn’t like short stories at one time, I had to respond. I have held that book in my hand a few times, but I keep telling myself, “No, you hate short stories. Put it back.” However, the reviews have been so spectacular, I am on a seesaw. You have me teetering.
    Ole!!!!

  2. You and me both where short stories are concerned, but of course, as you know, Lahiri is my exception to the rule as well. I am so envious of you having already read this. It isn’t into our library system as yet. I’m beginning to think that I may just have to break my rule and buy this one. I’m not certain I can wait much longer.

  3. Oooooh, your brunch sounds yummy!

    I am ashamed to admit I have read nothing by this author (but I mean to someday!). I enjoy short stories as long as they are not too ethereal. I recently read a short story by Marakumi (Landscape with Flatiron) and was completely confused as to the point of it. But, from what I’ve heard about Marakumi’s writing, this is to be somewhat expected!

    Enjoy your day!!

  4. I’m not much of a short story reader, but I loved Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Sounds like I may need to pick up Unaccustomed Earth, too.

    We aren’t that far apart – I’m in St. Petersburg and your margaritas sound great! Want more company *LOL*? I’m visiting as the first assignment of Weekly Geeks, but it won’t be the last time I visit your blog!

    ~Kristi (Passion for the Page)

  5. I’ve only just begun reading short stories since I bought Julia Orringer’s book How to breathe under water, I highly recommend it. Lahiri is on my list now, thanks for a great review.

    Oh and those mango margaritas sound fabulous!

  6. I’m SO glad to hear that you enjoyed this one. I just adored Interpreter of Maladies, and I will definitely be getting my grubby paws on this one ASAP. I was listening to the New York Times Review of Books podcast the other day, and the commentators were marveling at the fact that a relatively new author (only three works under her belt) of literary fiction–and SHORT STORIES no less–jumped straight to the top of the bestseller list. I’m so happy for Lahiri and hope she continues to crank out quality work (stories and all).

  7. This collection sounds absolutely wonderful. I’ll have to get hold of it but, like Ann, might have to wait until it reaches the UK. And as for lunch – yum! If only I could nip round to say hello!

  8. I wasn’t a fan of short stories before getting into this bookblogging… Now, I’m loving them. This is on my list now, too.

    The virtual mango margarita is perfect! Mmmmm

  9. Oh you are such a tease! 🙂 You’re having all my favorites, and I’m sitting here at work with two hours until my lunch break. But, I’ll survive. I have never been a big fan of short stories either until just recently. This collection sounds really good. The quotes you chose to share are beautiful.

  10. I’m working my way through Interpreter of Maladies right now, what an intriguing set of stories. I like short stories, and despite the fact her stories are very simple, I have been liking them so far.

    And boy am I ever jealous of Florida right now. It is so cold here in MN right now! Yuck.

  11. The new Alice Munro is a big claim, but judging from the praise Lahiri has received, you may be right.

    I almost bought this in the bookshop this week, but refrained as I still haven’t read Interpreter of Maladies or The Namesake yet although they’re on the TBR shelf.

    I will read them this year though!

  12. Hi, Becca — finally having a moment to blog-surf; rediscovering my favorites after a week of craziness. And as always, a new name to add to my growing list. I wouldn’t mind a few weeks to actually read SOMETHING — I’d settle for a magazine or a letter or even the paper. But at least I am back to reading you! Slowly getting back to a regular world (though life will remain insane for another couple of weeks); back to blogging — reading and posting again. Back to the world as I know it. Never calm, always lovely, and always filled with new things to explore. Cheers, my cyber friend!

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