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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
198 pages

This is not a book I would have chosen to read but it was this month's book club pick so I didn't have a choice. Boy, am I glad that is was!

The book is a collection of 9 short stories about different aspects of Indian and Indian/American life.

Lets begin with the "short story" part of that last sentence. I don't usually like short stories. I haven't read many but usually I find that as soon as I get hooked into the plot, the story is over. This book was very different. The stories did draw me in, but in most cases they were heartbreaking or painful in some way, and I was almost glad that they were over. That sounds like I didn't enjoy the book; in fact I did enjoy it very much, but not in a "fun" way, more in a "meaningful" way.

That brings me to the second part of the sentence above, the "different aspects of Indian and Indian/American life" part. These are not "feel-good" stories - these are "slice-of-life" and "reality" stories. And the reality is that most immigrants, regardless of where they are from, find it difficult to adapt to their new home while not abandoning their homeland. Rather than focusing on the big picture Lahiri gives us snapshots of (usually) immigrants lives, glimpses into the struggles they deal with on a daily basis, the clash of cultures, and so on. Three of the stories are told in first person point of view while the others are told in the third person.

Without spoilers, the nine stories in this book are:

  • A Temporary Matter - Indian couple in America loses baby, connects over power outage
  • When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine - young Indian girl in America explains visits of Indian man separated from his family during Partition
  • Interpreter of Maladies - cab driver in India feels connection with married Indian American woman
  • A Real Durwan - in India a former landowner works as doorman in poor area
  • Sexy - an American girl has an affair with married Indian man
  • Mrs. Sen’s - a young married Indian woman watches an American boy after school
  • The Blessed House - newly married Indian American couple finds Christian “stuff” in their house
  • The Treatment of Bibi Haldar - in India young woman with seizures is cared for by neighbors
  • The Third and Final Continent - a young Indian man rents room from old American woman before bringing his wife to America

Three of the stories really resonated with me, although I can't say for sure why.

  • Mrs. Sen's was the first in the book that really struck me. It was told from the point of view of the young American boy, and I think the insight he provided despite being a American and a child was perhaps the most meaningful part for me.
  • The Blessed House was funny and sad at the same time, and very enjoyable. As for the ending, of course it bugs me - as with most short stories, it is somewhat ambiguous. I can't wait to discuss this particular tale with my book club to see if the other gals think things ended differently than I do.
  • The Third and Final Continent was the perfect story with which to end this book. It was my very favorite of the tales. In this story and Indian man rents a room from an elderly American woman while waiting to bring his wife to America. Ends up that the woman is over 100 years old and was born in 1866. The dual clash of cultures - between the Indian man and America, and between the old woman and the America of the 1960s - was fascinating for me. And the ending was more neatly tied up than most of the other stories, which I appreciate. It's interesting to note that this story is based on Lahiri's father, a fact I learned while putting together discussion questions for my book club.
I'm very glad that I read this book. It (somewhat) changed my impression of short stories and it very definitely gave me insight into immigrant experiences that I was unfamiliar with.

This is a powerful book. The stories have insinuated themselves into me and the ones I connected with are continuing to pull at me, almost weighing me down, as if I've added something to myself. I'm not meaning to sound all philosophical, but I'm having a hard time explaining how these stories make me feel so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't make much sense.

My plan was to read one story each night before bed, as it seems that they need a bit of time to "soak in" but I didn't stick to that plan. It worked well at first though, and I suggest trying it out if you decide to read this book.

Questions for my readers:

  • Is there a special way to discuss short stories in a book club setting? We've never done it before.
  • Are there specific questions we should ask that would help us analyze a short story?
  • And, as always, have you read this book? I'd be happy to include a link to your review here.

UPDATE: To read my book club's recap of this book click here.

10 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I've heard so many good things about this author's work. I definitely need to check it out.

Anonymous said...

YAY! i'm SO glad you enjoyed her work!

opheliazepp

Amy said...

In my classroom, we usually discuss short stories both as individual works and as a body of work. Do they say the same the same thing if evaluated separately and evaluated together? But I teach middle school, so...

I, too, can't wait to talk about this one, though I honestly was almost incapable of moving past the first story.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

Heather, I have yet read *Interpreter of Maladies* (loved *The Namesake* though).

I've enjoyed reading more short stories over the past year, stepping out of my comfort zone and challenging myself.

Christopher Meeks (*Months and Seasons*) wrote a wonderful guest post on my blog about discussing short stories ... he was kind enough to reply to me when I asked the same question!

Bybee said...

I skimmed your review because it's on my Pulitzer list for 2009, but when I finish, I'll go back to this post and read it and share my opinion. Thanks in advance!

Rebecca Reid said...

I read this last year, and I also found them heartbreaking and yet powerful and worth reading. I think I most connected to "A Temporary Matter," because it was so sad to me, and I had just had a baby, and I was pondering my relationship with my husband in the "aftermath" of that.

I likewise look forward to more Lahiri!

Jen - devourer of books said...

If you liked this one I think you should read her newer work, Unaccustomed Earth. I think the stories were even better (and ever so slightly less depressing). Most of the stories were also longer, it was almost a book of novellas instead of short stories. I reviewed it here.

Dave at Read Street said...

I recently finished Unaccustomed Earth, and would strongly recommend it, too. (Though my wife just took it on a trip, and returned in a huff. Haven't had time to find out why she disliked it.) Lahiri's writing is simple, yet moving. Nothing grand happens in her stories, but the characters are always compelling. Can't wait to read Interpreter.

Anna said...

Great review! This sounds like something I would enjoy reading. For some reason, when I read short stories, I always connect with the depressing ones. (What does that say about me??)


--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

B said...

Good job on the review. I read this book years ago and loved it. But I'm a fan of short stories...B.

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