Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was my book group’s January selection. It’s a collection of nine short stories.
About the Book:
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.
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.
Are there authors whose debuts you’ve liked more than their later works?