by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published June 1, 1999
Fiction, short story collection
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was chosen at the last minute for our April book club pick. This book has been on my radar and in my bookcase ever since I read about it over at Books on the Brain (hi, Lisa!), and a deadline for book club was just the impetus I needed to read this book.
The opening story in Interpreter of Maladies, “A Temporary Matter”, follows the married couple Shoba and Shukumar as they are finally able to come together when the power is shut off in the evening and they have to use candles as their source of light. A stillborn baby six months previous has caused a rift in their marriage, and it’s heartbreaking to see how much they’ve grown apart. Sadly, Shukumar is finding Shoba to be less and less beautiful, noting:
Each day…her beauty, which had once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed superflouous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow.
The darkness seems to provide them a safe haven where they can open up, though whether this is too little too late is rather ambiguous at the end.
Another favorite story of mine was “This Blessed House” about a couple who married rather quickly and when they move into a new house and Twinkles starts finding religious icons that were left, her husband, Sanjeev, finds her pleasure in the icons to be annoying and embarassing. This was a particularly fun and entertaining story, with the theme of loving someone you don’t know being particularly prominent (see below for explanation of a couple themes consistent in this book).
The last story, “The Third and Final Continent”, is about an arranged marriage and how the husband, an Indian man, rented a room for a short while from Mrs. Croft (who happened to be over 100 years old!). It was at Mrs. Croft’s house when the Indian man is introducing Mrs. Croft to his wife (after he’d moved out) that they (the husband and wife) had their first connection. After Mrs. Croft asks Mala, the wife, to stand up so she can scrutinize her in her sari with the “dot painted on her forehead and bracelets stacked on her wrists”, she declares:
“She is a perfect lady!”
Now it was I who laughed. I did so quietly, and Mrs. Croft did not hear me. But Mala had heard, and, for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled.
I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft’s parlor as the moment when the distance between Mala and me began to lessen. Although we were not yet fully in love, I like to think of the months that followed as a honeymoon of sorts.
Isn’t that just beautiful?
This collection of short stories ostensibly has the theme of the difficulty of communication running through the stories. However, in the story “Sexy”, about Miranda who’s having an affair with a married man, she talks to a boy at a house she’s staying at and when he says she’s sexy, she asks him what it means. The boy, having heard his mother lament the affairs of his father with sexy women, responds, “It means loving someone you don’t know.” That is what Interpreter of Maladies is about: loving someone you don’t know.
Lahiri makes no bones about dealing with the difficulties of being an immigrant, and there is an undercurrent of distaste for American consummerism. In fact, while I got a lot out of the stories about how difficult it can be to communicate, how much people want to be loved, and how an author can write very simply but with beauty and profoundness (in the May 19, 2008 issue of Time Magazine, Lahiri’s other book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is discussed and it’s noted that you will not find in Lahiri’s works “vocabulary above the 10th-grade level”), one of my book club members who couldn’t attend the meeting sent me this note:
Every story was so freakin depressing and had no resolution. They all just tapered off with a “big sigh, life’s a bitch, that’s the way it goes” kind of feeling. If the author wants to communicate to her audience that Indians in this country are miserable, confused, homesick square pegs in round holes, then she was successful. Now every time I see a person who looks Indian to me, I find myself thinking “Aw, that poor woman” when actually she may be quite happy with her life, thank you very much.
Lahiri doesn’t mean to say that life sucks for immigrants, but she is saying that it’s hard, and really, are any of us that much different from those who come here looking for a new home?
Discussing short stories can be difficult with a book club, so we relied on Catherine Brady’s recommendation in her guest post on Caribousmom:
I would want to encourage book groups (and solo readers) to approach story collections in a very different way than they do novels. It can easily take two or three hours just to hash over the possibilities thrown up by three or four stories in a book, and if you skimped on this and tried to touch on every story, you’d probably feel disappointed with the discussion. It’s far more satisfying to single out three or four key stories—and usually the first and last stories in a book make a good choice—and first just discuss each on its own terms. Looking so closely at some of the stories often illuminates how the writer works and what themes are central to the book, so that we begin to get a sense of the whole even if we haven’t discussed each story, in order, as if the book were a chopped-up version of a novel. After looking closely at just a few stories, you usually can have a more general but more satisfying conversation about what a story collection might mean as a whole, which is different than what a novel means as a whole. Usually story collections are organized as variations on a theme, and we don’t have a single plot to help us see how this develops but have to think about comparing one story to another, one character’s predicament to another’s, in order to begin to get a sense of what concerns the writer and what we have discovered from the stories. If we might say of a novel that its plot is about finding hope after a tragedy, of a story collection we might have to say instead, well, the “plot” is about finding hope after a tragedy, but . . . but . . . but, with the ellipses standing for the qualifications supplied by one story after another. The whole is more than the sum of its parts if the story collection has been thoughtfully arranged.
Jhumpa Lahiri has set a new standard for short stories with Interpreter of Maladies. It is against Lahiri that all new short story authors will be compared.
If you’ve been thinking about buying this book, I’d highly recommend you click on one of these links below and buy it right now!
Rating: 90 out of 100