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Review – Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
198 pages
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!

Buy Interpreter of Maladies from Powell’s | Buy Interpreter of Maladies from Amazon

Rating: 90 out of 100

Other reviews:

Age 30 – A Lifetime of Books

Care’s Online Book Club

The Book Lady’s Blog

Book Addiction

books i done read

Bold. Blue. Adventure.

things mean a lot

reading is my superpower

Books on the Brain


| Tags: , , , , , 33 comments »

33 Responses to “Review – Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri”

  1. Care

    Excellent review. I enjoyed your take on this very much.


  2. Diane

    I loved this collection, but enjoyed her latest collection: Unaccustomed Earth, even more. Glad to see you enjoyed it as well.


  3. Teddy

    This is my favorite short story collection! i’m glad you enjoyed it!


  4. gentle reader

    Great review! I loved this, and The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth. Just waiting for the next Lahiri book to come out–hope she’s busy writing 🙂


  5. Beth F

    Great review. I am usually not much of a short story reader, but thanks to your review, I’m at least adding this book to my wish list.


  6. Marie

    Nice review. I haven’t read her, and I think I really need to!


  7. Amy Reads Good Books

    I often overlook collections of short stories. However, this one looks too good to miss!


  8. gaby317

    Thank you for doing this great review! I really enjoyed her previous set of short stories and will definitely look for her new book.

    gaby317nyc AT gmail DOT com


  9. Heather J.

    You linked to my review so I assume you know that I loved this book. But I thought your insight about what the book was really about was VERY good – that hadn’t occurred to me, nor did it come up in my book club’s discussion. Yes, the stories were “heavy” but they were also very good and some of them have stayed with me for the past several months. You mentioned two of my favorites – The Blessed House (which was laugh-out-loud funny in part) and The Third and Final Continent (which seemed the most real to me). I’m glad your book club gave you the push to read this one!


  10. Darlene

    I’m not usually one for short stories but I listened to this on audio and really enjoyed it.


  11. Jen - Devourer of Books

    Great review, I LOVE Lahiri!


  12. bethany (Dreadlock Girl)

    I loved this book!! There were three that were my faves in this book, one that I didn’t really like, but still did and the rest were great reads. I would say you can’t loose with Lahiri. I really need to read her latest!!!


  13. lilly

    Great review, very insighful and informative. I have this book on my shelf but because it’s a collection of short stories I have yet to read it. I am not a huge fan of short stories. They sound quite controversial to me and I am intrigued to read them now since I am an immigrant myself, not from India but an immigrant nonetheless. I am very happy where I am and would not go back to my old country ever. On a personal note I have noticed a frequent lack of appreciation and a lot of complaints on the side of immigrants which I find hypocritical in the least because there must have been a reason why they are here and not there and why they continue to be here. Unless we’re prisoners, we all have the freedom to go back and live in the country where we came from.


  14. Belle

    What a great review. I’ve been on the lookout for more short stories – I’ve been feeling like I’ve been neglecting this area of my reading life. Your comments about this collection are very helpful. I don’t know if I would have normally picked up on this one, but I will definitely check it out now.


  15. Bobby

    “Now every time I see a person who looks Indian to me, I find myself thinking “Aw, that poor woman”


    It’s funny, every time I read Raymond Carver, I can’t look at white people without thinking, you poor alcoholic hearbroken melancholy failures.


  16. Kathy

    I have yet to read a negative review of this book. I need to get hold of a copy to see for myself!


  17. Heather

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this one so much! Lahiri is amazing – I’ve loved all of her books. I would especially recommend her only novel, The Namesake. It’s absolutely wonderful.


  18. zibilee

    I read this one last year and absolutely loved it! Lahiri is an exceptional writer who has a great style and voice. I am probably going to be reading this one again, and hope to also get to her new one as well. Great review!


  19. Megan

    Great review. I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing – I think she’s my favourite discovery of the last couple of years. She has definitely mastered the short story. The Namesake, her novel, is fabulous too.


  20. Caty

    Hi Trish.

    I really enjoy your blog. Because you make me smile, I’m giving you a Lemonade Award. The details are on my blog.

    I can’t remember whether I’ve ever actually commented on your blog before. I’m really bad at commenting. I promise to comment in future, though, and not just lurk in the background.



  21. Caty

    Okay, so I’m technologically incompetent as well as bad at remembering to leave comments. This link should work.


  22. Biblibio

    It seems like this might be one of those books that some love and others hate. I suppose I’ll have to find out for myself then.


  23. Andi

    Great review, Trish! I loved this book when I read it several years ago, and I’ve been horrible in picking up any more of Lahiri’s work. I have The Namesake on my shelves, and I returned Unaccustomed Earth unread. Bad Andi! I’ve never discussed short stories with a book group, but this would be a great one for that I can imagine.


  24. Bookfool, aka Nancy

    I’m just catching up on posts and WAIT! What happened to the missing evil cat? Did you ever say? If so, I missed it.


  25. Staci

    I loved it too!! Excellent review!! I posted my thoughts a while back on this one.


  26. nikki

    Great review. Though I actually prefer The Namesake to either of her collections of short stories. Some Indian immigrants seem to not like Lahiri very well, because her stories, taken as a whole, tend to paint the same portrait of the Indian immigration experience.


  27. Kailana

    I really want to read this, but I am just not a ‘short stories’ person. It means that it keeps getting pushed down the priority list by non-short story collections! The great thing is… I think I own it… Glad you enjoyed it! Maybe it will inspire me to get around to it already!


  28. gaby317

    I really enjoy your blog and have an award for you. Please check out:



  29. Jules

    Hey there, stopping by to let you know I have an award waiting for you at my blog, here’s the link
    keep up the great reviews.


  30. S. Krishna

    I loved this book, and love Lahiri’s writing style! I have Unaccustomed Earth on my shelf, I really need to get to it!


  31. Kim L

    I read this one last year, and I found myself completely drawn into her amazing style. I could still admire the stories I didn’t enjoy as much. She has such a talent for bringing characters alive without many words. I didn’t think her stories were all depressing. They were mostly character studies and most had ambiguous endings, because of course people’s lives don’t end neatly when and where we want them to. I really liked that about her stories.


  32. Meg Waite Clayton

    I LOVED this book. Just lovely.


  33. Amit Gupta

    Collection of 9 stories, each depicting a different pain, and it becomes difficult to tell that which pain was the most difficult to bear.

    I read all 9 stories in 9 days, one on each day, so as to absorb each story fully one by one. The detailed description provided by Jhumpa takes you into the lives of the characters and enables you to feel the grief from within. My personal favorite is “A temporary Matter”.

    She truly is an Interpreter of Maladies!!!!


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