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Thoughts on “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was my book group’s January selection. It’s a collection of nine short stories.

About the Book:

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (cover)The characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection cover plenty of ground. There’s an Indian couple living in the US and slowly pulling apart. There’s an American child who spends his afternoons in the care of a woman who can’t let go of India and adjust to life in the US. There’s a young woman in India with an unnamed illness. There’s a tour guide who takes an American family of Indian descent on a trip to the Sun Temple. There is a young man beginning a life for himself in Boston and an American woman having an affair with an Indian man. Each story is its own entity yet is tied to the others, at the deepest level, by shared themes.

My Thoughts:

The back of my copy of Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, cites Lahiri’s “signature themes” as being “the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations.” The quote refers to The Namesake, but it applies equally well to Interpreter of Maladies. Though the surface permutations and secondary themes differ from story to story, beneath each one runs a shared current of the issues cited above. Regardless of the characters, settings, and situations she chooses, Lahiri weaves her themes into her stories’ cores.

Lahiri has a distinct way of narrating her stories. As I read, I got the feeling that no story was actually about the person narrating. There were stories told in first person, limited third person, and even one in first person plural, but I always felt that the narrator was more a lens through which to observe the focal character, not so much a developed character him- or herself. This narrative style has the effect of removing the reader by a degree. It’s as if you’re watching events and emotions unfold instead of experiencing them yourself.

Lahiri’s writing is deceptively straightforward. It’s not complex or flowery, yet it is characterized by a simple beauty. She tells you what you need to know but does not bother with superfluous words. Every sentence is important, which made her stories hard to skim. Thankfully, they are plenty interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention! I found myself spreading them out, reading one a day so as to allow each story to sink in.

When Lahiri’s latest short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, came out a few years ago, I read it. It was my first of her books. While I liked the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, I feel like Interpreter of Maladies is the stronger and more beautiful collection. I’ve not yet read The Namesake, but it awaits me on my shelf, and I have no doubt I’ll read it at some point. If you’re new to Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, I would absolutely recommend Interpreter of Maladies as a great starting point, even if short stories aren’t usually your favorite sort of fiction.

Those are my thoughts. Check out Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri on GoodReads or LibraryThing, or read other bloggers’ reviews!

Your Turn!

Are there authors whose debuts you’ve liked more than their later works?

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  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    I read this a couple months ago and loved it, and I’m not normally a short story collection fan! I plan to read Unaccustomed Earth in the next few months.

    On the other hand, I tried to read The Namesake and didn’t like it at all…

    • Erin

      Interesting about The Namesake! I haven’t tried that one yet, but I do have it. Lahiri’s stories seem to work well for people who don’t usually like short stories; I wonder why? Enjoy Unaccustomed Earth!

  • http://bookfanmary.wordpress.com Mary

    Ok, it’s on my list. I read The Namesake a few years ago (liked it) and then Unaccustomed Earth two years ago – it’s my favorite book of short stories (not a big fan of those). After reading your review I look forward to reading more of her SS!

    • Erin

      Excellent — it’s so good! I liked Interpreter of Maladies better than Unaccustomed Earth, so I hope you’ll at least like it as much. It’s amazing how many non-fans of short stories really end up liking Lahiri’s work!

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I started to read this one last year but the circumstances of the first story were too close to home at the time so I put it down and haven’t picked it back up. I also have The Namesake on my shelf. Maybe I’ll pick one of these up soon–perhaps some short stories between Ulysses chapters? 😉

    I look forward to Lahiri’s style–I enjoy when every sentence and word counts.

    • Erin

      Ah, yes, Ulysses. Having a break lined up for that sounds like a good plan! I’m hoping to read The Namesake this year, though I’m not sure exactly when. If you decide to read it and would like company, let me know! Or, if you go with Interpreter of Maladies, I hope you love it the second time around :-)

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    This is one of my favorite story collections, and even having read it so many moons ago, I still distinctly remember scenes and passages from it. Have you read her newest collection, Unaccustomed Earth? I have it but have not read it yet. Wonderful review, by the way!

    • Erin

      It’s amazing how vividly some writers can implant their stories in your mind, isn’t it? I have read Unaccustomed Earth, which I liked, but not as much. To me, Interpreter of Maladies covered a wider variety of situations than did Unaccustomed Earth. They’re both beautifully written, though, and worth reading!

  • http://www.linussblanket.com Nicole

    I think I have read one story out of the Interpreter of Maladies, and based on hat story I think that I agree with you that it might be the stronger of the two collection. I have also read The Namesake and while I do feel her stories are beautifully written there is a distance in them all that keeps me from absolutely loving the books and the characters within. for that reason her books are never on the list for me to run right out and read.

    • Erin

      I think I would agree with you, Nicole. There is that distance that keeps the reader from connecting deeply with any of the characters or getting completely swept up in the story. Lahiri is one of those authors I read when I’m looking for something lovely but don’t necessarily need a book that will carry me away. For instance, I have The Namesake on my shelf, and though I’d like to read it, I’m not in any rush!

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    Unaccustomed Earth was my first Lahiri, and I have to say, it really bugged me! I agree that Lahiri has a really engaging style and her stories draw you immediately, but I found the material of her stories SO repetitive. And also kind of stereotypical. I mean, are we really supposed to believe that all Indian immigrants settle in Boston, MA and get PhDs in sciences and work exclusively at Harvard and MIT save for the rare doctor. And they all vacation in Italy and have terrible marriages if they happen to get married to a Westerner? I just thought it was so bizarre that the stories were so repetitive! I think she is a great technical writer, but unless she broadens her scope, I’m not interested in her, I’m afraid!

    • Erin

      Ha, yes, Steph…you’re voicing a lot of the thoughts I had when I read Unaccustomed Earth, though I still enjoyed the collection for the writing and style. You might like Interpreter of Maladies better, actually. The deep themes are shared between the stories, but the stories themselves cover a wide variety of situations. There are some set only in India, some with Americans, some with children, one even sort of from an American woman’s perspective. I thought the variety was much better in Interpreter of Maladies. If you ever do read it, I will be most interested to hear your thoughts!

  • http://www.eclectic-eccentric.com Trisha

    Like Amanda, I don’t tend to love short stories, but this collection was just so wonderful to read. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • Erin

      It’s really interesting how many people who don’t usually like short stories seem to enjoy Lahiri’s collections! I’m one of them, too.

  • http://zeteticat.blogspot.com Cat

    Interpreter of Maladies immediately became one of my favorite books when I read it several years ago upon its release. The stories were haunting, and the feelings simmering just beneath the surface were palpably felt. I have meant to revisit this collection for some time; perhaps this is the year. I still haven’t managed to read either of her later works, although they are on my to-read list as well. Also: Excellent, wonderfully articulated review!

    • Erin

      Thanks, Cat! They are masterfully done short stories, aren’t they? I love how simple Lahiri’s writing seems while underneath she’s managing to do all sorts of complicated, wonderful things. Enjoy her later works, when you get to them — I’m hoping to get to The Namesake soon myself.

  • http://www.thingsmeanalot.com Nymeth

    “A simple beauty” is a lovely way to put it. I love her writing so much.

    • Erin

      Me too, even if I don’t love the stories (which happened to me with Unaccustomed Earth)!

  • http://www.bostonbibliophile.com Marie

    I just got this book in the mail today and can’t wait to start it. Someone taped a note to the inside of the front cover describing it as a necklace of pearls. I’m glad you loved it!

    • Erin

      Ooh, that’s a beautiful description! I hope you find the book to fit that description well :-)

  • http://niesaandanbolynread.wordpress.com Anbolyn

    I’m glad to hear that this is a good place to start with Lahiri because I have this on my TBR and haven’t read her before. Now I am definitely looking forward to it!

    • Erin

      Yes, I’d definitely say start here! I found her other short story collection (Unaccustomed Earth) to be well written, but I didn’t enjoy the stories as much. And I’ve heard The Namesake is good, but I feel like Lahiri is best known for her short story collections. So, Interpreter of Maladies is perfect — enjoy!

  • http://http//booksnyc.blogspot.com Colleen (Books in the City)

    This is one of my favorite books – I never liked short stories until I read those by Lahiri. I do agree with you, however that this collection is stronger than her second collection.

    I also agree with Trish that every sentence and word counts. I hope she writes more soon.

    • Erin

      It seems a lot of people who don’t usually enjoy short stories are drawn to Lahiri’s! I’m hoping whatever she does next will be more like Interpreter of Maladies than Unaccustomed Earth. While both are well written, I enjoyed the former more.

  • http://www.lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I read “Unaccustomed Earth” first and was just blown away by it. I was never a big fan of short stories until I read Lahiri. She truly is a master of the form. I thought this collection wasn’t as good but it may have been because I was expecting greatness this time and wasn’t as surprised by her amazing talent. I too have The Namesake on my shelves to read. I’m very curious how she will make the leap from short stories to novel.

    • Erin

      That’s interesting that you preferred Unaccustomed Earth! I do think the order in which we read books by the same author affects our perception of them, depending on how we felt about the book(s) we read first. For me, I enjoyed Lahiri’s writing and style in Unaccustomed Earth, but I didn’t love the stories her stories told (if that makes sense!), so when I read Interpreter of Maladies and loved the stories as well as the writing, I liked the collection all the more! Either way, I do think she’s an amazing author and will read her future collections, I’m sure. If you’d like to join forces to tackle The Namesake, I’d be happy to do so!

  • http://yourmovedickens.blogspot.com/ Darlyn

    I read this a couple of years ago when I was in high school, and I guess I was too young to understand it. I did, however, love the last story about a young Indian man who marries the girl his family chose for him. It was an arranged marriage but they learned to love each other, and I thought it was very beautiful. Your review makes me want to read it again. :)

    • Erin

      That was my favorite story, too! It was also the only one that had a sort of positive upswing at the end; all the others weren’t explicitly negative, but they left me feeling like something was still unresolved. That last story was the exception!

  • http://senior-common-room.blogspot.com Annie

    This was the book that convinced me that the Pulitzer judges do a far better job than do the Booker. I think this is superb and I don’t do short stories.

    • Erin

      Lots of people have said they’re not big on short stories but really like Lahiri…I think that’s so interesting! I’ve never compared Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners — prizes have never really been on my reading radar, though the more I see people paying attention to them, the more interested in them I become.

  • http://writemeg.com Meg

    To date, Lahiri’s The Namesake remains my most favorite read of all time. Her language is beautiful and engrossing, and I read Interpreter Of Maladies a year or two after reading her only novel. Though I don’t normally read short stories, it so moved me — and I’m still able to recall tangible details years later. I’ve been saving Unaccustomed Earth for a rainy day!

    • Erin

      Meg, that makes me excited to read The Namesake! It’s the only of hers I’ve not yet read. I’m hoping she comes out with another collection (or novel) soon. Enjoy Unaccustomed Earth, when you do decide to read it!