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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Reason for Reading: Short Story Challenge
Rating: 4/5

This collection of short stories by Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri are, on the surface, very simple. The characters are almost all Indian, and the setting is sometimes America, sometimes India. There isn't much suspense or drama in her stories. However, there is an understated power in the stories because Lahiri knows how to develop a relationship between characters in a minimum of words.

The stories range in theme, but all of them touch somewhat on cultural differences. The title story of the book is about Mr. Kapasi, an Indian man who works as a translator at at doctor's office and a tour guide on the weekends. As he talks with and observes an American family he is taking on a tour, his perspective changes on the job he considers menial. Another story is told from the perspective of a boy who watches his Indian babysitter's life slowly unravel from loneliness as she tries to adjust to her new life in America, far away from her family.

Several of the stories feature the complicated relationships between married couples. Traditionally, Indian marriages are arranged by the family, and Lahiri brings a reader with no understanding of that custom right into the thick of what it is like to be marry and be married to someone you didn't know well if at all before the wedding. Here in my favorite story, This Blessed House, we are introduced to the newlyweds Sanjeev and Twinkle.

"Guess what I found." Twinkle walked into the living room, lined from end to end with taped-up packing boxes, waving (a bottle of malt vinegar) in one hand and a white porcelain effigy of Christ, roughly the same size as the vinegar bottle, in the other.

Sanjeev looked up. He was kneeling on the floor, marking with ripped bits of a Post-it, patches on the baseboard that needed to be retouched with paint. "Throw it away."


"Which?"


"Both."


"But I can cook something with the vinegar. It's brand new."


"You've never cooked anything with vinegar."


"I'll look something up. In one of those books we got for our wedding."...


"Check the expiration. And at the very least get rid of that idiotic statue."


"But it could be worth something. Who knows?... It's pretty."


"We're not Christians," Sanjeev said. Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle. The day before he had to tell her that if she dragged her end of the bureau instead of lifting it the paraquet floor would scratch.


She shrugged. "No, we're not Christians. We're good little Hindus." She planted a kiss on top of Christ's head, then placed the statue on top of the fireplace mantel, which needed, Sanjeev observed, to be dusted.


I love that introduction because right away we can have an idea of the relationship between the fastidious Sanjeev and Twinkle. We can guess that Sanjeev isn't quite sure what to make of his free-spirited bride. They will argue further about the Christ figurine, but their fight won't even remotely be about the actual figurine. And chances are, they will have no clue why it's so important.

These stories move at a slower pace, perfect for a lazy afternoon. Aren't you glad the weather is getting nicer? (That is unless you are lucky enough to live where the weather is warm year round). Pull this one out while you enjoy your deck or hammock or lawnchair.

Here are some other reviews:

Ravenous Reader's review
Nymeth's review

6 comments:

Nymeth said...

"There is an understated power in the stories because Lahiri knows how to develop a relationship between characters in a minimum of words."

So true. I'm glad you also enjoyed this book :)

Kim L said...

nymeth-it was a great book! Thanks for recommending it to me.

Trish said...

I have yet to read anything by her, but I really want to. I'm such a bum when it comes to short stories. I really enjoy them but I never read them--I guess maybe the end result isn't as satisfying as finishing a book? I don't know, but this sounds like a powerful collection.

Eva said...

I loved this one when I read it years ago too! (And The Namesake is great as well) My favourite story was the one with the electricity outages...I can't remember the title right now though!

Kim L said...

trish-have you joined the short story reading challenge? It has motivated me to read more short stories. I've been enjoying it so far. I like short stories, I just don't typically pick them up from the library.

eva-that was a really great story. "A Temporary Matter" I think. Yeah, she knows how to develop the relationship between characters really well.

monster paperbag said...

I love her work. Her The Namesake is a great read, too :).