Jhumpa Lahiri has won a Pulitzer Prize for her fine writing, the author of both a novel and a collection of short stories. Now she returns with another collection of stories. To call them “short” is probably a misnomer. Unaccustomed Earth contains only eight stories, the last three of which are linked, with two main characters trading points of view. This allows her to dig deeply into the tales of the characters who inhabit her stories.
The collection is largely very satisfying. While I didn’t quite identify with one or two of the stories, their characters and plot arcs, I did appreciate most of them. Lahiri has a fine grasp on human nature and expresses the nuanced and often opposing feelings dueling beneath the surface of most people’s facades. Her writing is real, the feelings and behaviors of her characters ringing true to life. Of course, most of her characters are Indian immigrants or Indian-Americans who have been raised in the United States. She repeatedly shows the contrasting values and cultures of parents and children, just a generation apart, who have been raised on opposite sides of the world. It’s interesting to see some of the culture of the Indians, just as it’s interesting to note the struggle between the parents and children, reflected in so many immigrant families from all over.
Most notably, however, it doesn’t matter deep down what culture or ethnicity these characters represent; what’s most important is that their feelings and behaviors are universal. The human soul is what it is, no matter where it hails from, and Lahiri captures the successes and struggles of that soul beautifully.
I particularly appreciated “A Choice of Accommodations,” in which an Indian-American man and his American wife leave their young daughters with grandparents for a weekend to attend the wedding of an old friend of his from prep school. They anticipate a much-needed getaway, some time together. They get it, but not exactly in the way they were expecting. The story shows so elegantly the nuances of married life any long-married couple will easily relate to.
The last three stories were poignant and often heart-rending. A man and woman who have known each other since childhood reflect on different experiences they have each had, and in the last story they reconnect as adults. The ending is surprising and resonates long after the book has been closed.
Rated: Moderate, when gathered into a whole, for about four occurrences of strong language and some sexual content. Taken individually, however, the stories range from None to Moderate, which means that the reader can read just the stories with content that is on an acceptable level.
The title story is None. “Hell-Heaven” is Mild to Moderate for a sexual reference of a few sentences. “A Choice of Accommodations” is Moderate for one occurrence of moderate language and a sexual scene. “Only Goodness” is Moderate for one use of strong language. “Nobody’s Business” is Moderate to high for three occurrences of strong language. The last three stories, taken together, are Mild for one or two uses of mild language and mild sexual references.