‘Interpreter of Maladies’ – Book Review

This article originally appeared on Lit To Lens on Mar. 7, 2016.

Title: Interpreter of Maladies
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Year Of Publication: 1999
Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

A collection of nine short stories by first-time author Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. And it’s brilliant.

Born in London to immigrants from the state of West Bengal, Lahiri moved to the United States when she was two. To the northeast. The collection of stories is a reflection of this upbringing – Lahiri growing up by assimilation.

The characters who populate her stories come from all walks of life, though many are Indian or of Indian descent. Most are in new, foreign places – often Boston or its surrounding suburbs – and trying to adjust to an unfamiliar life while simultaneously balancing familial, cultural, or religious traditions. It’s like watching a fish readjust to life underwater.

In my favorite story, “The Third And Final Continent,” the protagonist, an Indian man in his 30’s moves from London to Boston to work in the MIT library. He’s to meet his arranged-marriage bride in a number of weeks but until then he must find a place to stay and a life to live. He lives in an apartment complex with an elderly woman who he initially does not like. To him, she’s stodgy, loud, and unpleasant.

But he comes to respect her. It turns out she’s one hundred and three years old, born in 1866. She’s lived through so much, seen so much, and, like the protagonist, everything to her in 1969 (when the story is set) is new and confounding. She calls the mission to the Moon “splendid” and makes comments about the length of women’s skirts. When his wife arrives from India, the protagonist moves to a larger apartment. Soon after, the old woman dies. In a way, it unlocks the protagonist. When he lived with her, he lived in a past. Where people didn’t go to the moon. When she’s passed, he’s able to live in the present and in the future. He ends up having a family and a rewarding life, though he never forgets the old woman and the time he spent there.

Based on my limited Lahiri experience (this was the first of her’s I’d read) she’s got an ear for dialog and a proclivity to reflect the grand in the mundane. Her prose flows like the red wine her characters drink and is as rich as the egg curry the protagonist in “The Third And Final Continent” makes for himself. You must try it.

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