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Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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A-Unaccustomed EarthIn these eight stories, Lahiri explores familiar terrain—generational conflicts in which children defy their parents’ traditional behaviors and dreams while carrying those burdens into their own lives. In the title story, Ruma, pregnant with her second child, feels dislocated by her family’s move to Seattle. In a surprising turn of events, Ruma, marooned at home like her traditional mother, finds that she needs her recently widowed father more than he needs her. In other stories, a Bengali-American husband and his Anglo wife embark on a romantic weekend that goes awry, and an Indian-American woman attempts to deal with her brother’s alcoholism. The last trio of stories, set in India, Massachusetts, and Rome, follows the lives of Hema and Kaushik for over 30 years, as they meet, separate, and then come together again. About exile, assimilation, loss, and acceptance, these stories ultimately seek to define "home."
Knopf. 331 pages. $25. ISBN: 0307265730

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"There are no sentimental flourishes of the exotic that romanticize the mystical allure of the East. … There is, however, an absolutely convincing and ultimately redemptive humanity in Lahiri’s characters." John Gregory Brown

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s early to be proclaiming a best book of the year, but Jhumpa Lahiri’s gorgeous new collection of eight stories, Unaccustomed Earth, will be hard to top. … Not only do these tales showcase Lahiri’s gift for distilling lives into 25 to 50 pages, they also show why short stories are her form: She is a master of endings." Heller McAlpin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As in all her fiction, Lahiri’s prose here is deceptively simple, its mechanics invisible, as she enters into her characters’ innermost journeys. … The final story … is slightly jarring—it’s the only one to take place overseas and their reunion has a touch of convenient inevitability about it." Lisa Fugard

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lahiri has] an intimate knowledge of their conflicted hearts, using her lapidary eye for detail to conjure their daily lives with extraordinary precision: the faint taste of coconut in the Nice cookies that a man associates with his dead wife; the Wonder Bread sandwiches, tinted green with curry, that a Bengali mother makes for her embarrassed daughter to take to school. A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories." Michiko Kakutani

New York Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The generational conflicts Lahiri depicts cut across national lines; the waves of admiration, competition and criticism that flow between the two families could occur between Smiths and Taylors in any suburban town. … Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints." Liesl Schillinger

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The most poignant stories in Unaccustomed Earth delve into grown children’s efforts to deal with the fact that their father’s life didn’t end when their mother died. … When the parents disappear, the stories suffer." Yvonne Zipp

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The stories she generates from these clashes appear true to life, and while a few lack nuance and at times feel familiar, they are never predictable. Lahiri is far too accomplished and empathic a writer to relax her gaze; she excels at uncovering character and choosing detail." Lily Tuck

Critical Summary

Lahiri’s newest collection explores the universal moments—sibling rivalry, the start or end of an affair, the death of a loved one—that reverberate throughout life. In stories written in a speciously simple, graceful style, Lahiri develops psychologically resonant characters and fine-tunes her observations about second-generation immigrant life, all the while casting an empathetic eye on life’s many expectations and disappointments. Critics agree that Unaccustomed Earth is a standout collection—with a few minor flaws. In some stories, Lahiri doesn’t go far enough in building tension; a sense of predictability hangs over others. Perhaps the most common complaint, faint with praise, is that since Lahiri has approached this subject so successfully in the past, a writer with her talent might wish to tackle other subjects. Then again, there’s not much wrong with an embarrassment of riches.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the relevance of the epigraph from Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” not just to the title story but also to the collection as a whole. In which stories do the children successfully “strike their roots into unaccustomed earth”? Why do others find themselves unable to establish roots? How do their feelings of restlessness and insecurity stem from growing up in two cultures? What other more universal problems do they experience? In what ways does their lack of attachment to a place or culture reflect a more general trend in society?

2. In “Unaccustomed Earth,” what underlies the tension in the relationship between Ruma and her father as the story opens? What aspects of the family’s history inhibit their ability to communicate with each other? How do their memories of Ruma’s mother and the life she led influence the paths they choose for the next stages in their lives? Do you feel more sympathy for either character’s point of view?

3. In what ways does “Heaven-Hell” echo the themes explored in “Unaccustomed Earth”? How does the way the story unfolds add to its power and its poignancy? What parallels are there between the narrator’s mother’s “crush” on Pranab and her own infatuation with him and Deborah?

4. What is the significance of the title “A Choice of Accommodations”? What does it imply about Amit and Megan’s marriage? Why do you think Lahiri chose to set the story at Amit’s old prep school? Do you think the events of the weekend bring Amit a better sense of who he is, what he wants and needs from Megan, and his role as a husband and father? Will the weekend change anything for Amit and Megan and their relationship?

5. “Only Goodness” traces the impact of parental expectations on a sister and brother. Why did Sudha and Rahul develop in such different ways? Discuss such factors as the circumstances surrounding their births and earliest years; the obligations Sudha takes on both as the “perfect daughter” and in response to the combination of love, envy, and resentment Rahul’s attitudes and behavior arouse in her; and the siblings’ awareness of and reactions to the “perplexing fact of [their] parents’ marriage” [p. 137]. Compare and contrast the siblings’ choice of partners. What attracts Sudha to Roger, and Rahul to Elena?

6. Why does Paul, the American graduate student in “Nobody’s Business,” find his roommate, Sang, the recipient of frequent marriage proposals, so intriguing? Does Paul really want to help Sang, or does he get involved in her relationship with Farouk for more selfish reasons? Why do you think Lahiri titled this story “Nobody’s Business”–and what does the title mean to you?

7. In “Once in a Lifetime,” Hema addresses Kaushik directly as she recalls the time they spent together as teenagers. How does this twist on the first-person narration change your experience as a reader? Does it establish a greater intimacy between you and the narrator? Does it have an effect on the flow of the narrative? On the way Hema presents her memories? Is it comparable, for example, to reading a private letter or diary? Are the same things true of Kaushik’s narrative in “Year’s End”?

8. In an interview with Bookforum, Lahiri, whose parents immigrated to London and then to the United States, said, “My parents befriended people simply for the fact that they were like them on the surface; they were Bengali, and that made their circle incredibly vast. There is this de facto assumption that they’re going to get along, and often that cultural glue holds them, but there were also these vast differences. My own circle of friends is much more homogenous, because most of my friends went to college–Ivy League or some other fine institution–and vote a certain way.” How is this mirrored by the friendship between the two sets of parents in “Once in a Lifetime,” who are close friends despite the differences in their backgrounds? Why does this attachment deteriorate when the Choudhuri family returns from India? Which of their habits or attitudes do Hema’s parents find particularly reprehensible and why? What is the significance of Kaushik’s breaking his family’s silence and telling Hema about his mother’s illness?

9. How would you describe the tone and style of Kaushik’s account of his father’s remarriage in “Year’s End”? Does his conversation with his father [pp. 253-255] reveal similarities between them? Why does Kaushik say, “I didn’t know which was worse–the idea of my father remarrying for love, or of his actively seeking out a stranger for companionship” [p. 255]? Does the time he spends with his father’s new family offer an alternate, more complex, explanation for his father’s decision?

10. What role do his stepsisters play in Kaushik’s willingness to accept his father’s marriage? Why is he so outraged by their fascination with the pictures of his mother? He later reflects, “in their silence they continued to both protect and punish me” [p.293]. In what ways does their silence and the reasons for it mirror Kaushik’s own behavior, both here and in “Once in a Lifetime”?

11. How do “Once in a Lifetime” and “Year’s End” set the stage for “Going Ashore,” the final story in the trilogy? What traces of their younger selves are visible in both Hema and Kaushik? In what ways do the paths they’ve chosen reflect or oppose the journeys their parents made as immigrants?

12. Why does Hema find the idea of an arranged marriage appealing? How has her affair with Julian affected her ideas about romantic love? What does her description of her relationship with Navin [pp. 296-298] reveal about what she thinks she wants and needs in a relationship? What role do her memories of her parents’ marriage play in her vision of married life?

13. What motivates Kaushik’s decision to become a photojournalist? In what ways does the peripatetic life of a photojournalist suit his idea of himself? In addition to the many moves his family made, what other experiences make him grow up to be an outsider, “away from the private detritus of life” [p. 309]?

14. What does the reunion in Rome reveal about the ties that bind Hema and Kaushik despite their many years of separation? What does it illustrate about their attempts to escape from the past and their parents’ way of life? What do they come to realize about themselves and the plans they have made as the intimacy between them escalates? Why does Lahiri introduce Hema’s voice as the narrator of the final pages?

15. In what ways does “Going Ashore” bring together the themes threaded through the earlier stories? What does the ending demonstrate about realities of trying to find a home in the world?

16. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth offer a moving, highly original perspective on the clash between family and cultural traditions and the search for individual identity. How does the sense of displacement felt by the older, immigrant generation affect their American-born children? What accommodations do the children make to their parents’ way of life? In trying to fit in with their American friends, do they sacrifice their connections to their heritage? In what ways are the challenges they face more complex than those of their parents?

17. Several stories feature marriages between an Indian-American and an American–and in once case, English--spouse. What characteristics do these mixed marriages share? In what ways does becoming parents themselves bring up (or renew) questions about cultural identity? What emotions arise as they contemplate the differences between the families they’re creating and those in which they grew up?

Suggested Reading

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arranged Marriage; Andre Dubus, Dancing After Hours; Mavis Gallant, Varieties of Exile; Barbara Kingsolver, Homeland and Other Stories; Bharati Mukherjee, The Middleman; Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman; Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories; William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.