I received this book from a friend when I ran into her in a classroom during a break between classes at college.
"I have something for you!" she said, taking out a book from her backpack. "I think you're really going to like it."
She was right. I did.
Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. The stories examine the lives of Indian-Americans (as Lahiri herself is also an Indian-American) with a sense of empathy and clarity of language that I haven't read in a while. The writing seems spare, but there isn't more that is needed to help you engage with the worlds, and the characters, that Lahiri creates.
The characterization is what makes these stories so memorable to me. Short stories don't always give the writer the time and space to fully realize the characters, but Lahiri manages to do so in every piece in the collection. These are real people, her writing seems to say, and even if their stories seem mundane, there is beauty in bearing witness to the everyday occurrences that make up our lives. We fall in love, we fall out of love, we learn how to adapt to new situations while still longing for what used to be so familiar. Lahiri's characters feel like mirrors – we recognize the uncomfortable parts we see, the reactions that make us human. And Lahiri’s characters are very human. They hurt, they are confused, they misunderstand and are misunderstood. But they also wonder. They laugh. They love and lose, but perhaps they find love again.
Something I appreciate about Lahiri’s writing is her ability to find a poignant kind of magic in the ordinary. Her stories are based around events such as a power line needing to be repaired and thus there is an hour of darkness right at dinner time for a week. Or the inciting action is a family showing up for a guided tour of a temple in India. Or a man and a woman meet in a department store. These are the everyday things that happen to us all, and the stories that Lahiri spins from these events showcase the whole of the human experience.
In the final story of the collection, “The Third and Final Continent,” the reader is treated to a first-person story (Lahiri writes in both third- and first-person) of a Bengali immigrant to the United States in the 1960s, and how he adapts to life there. His landlady is a 100-year-old woman who is the definition of a “character,” with her insistence on his using the word ‘splendid’ and her dedication to old-fashioned notions such as skirts that reach the floor. The landlady, Mrs. Croft, is very much a Lahiri character, with layers that are revealed as the story progresses. In a scene where the protagonist is delivering his rent to Mrs. Croft, he insists on handing it to her directly even though she requested he place it on the piano far away from her. He knows she cannot walk well and while reluctant, Mrs. Croft takes the money as he offers it to her (184). Later, when the protagonist returns home, Mrs. Croft does not speak about the moon landing as she usually does but instead thanks him, saying “It was very kind of you!” while “still holding the envelope in her hands” (184).
The protagonist (who is not named) while learning how to adapt to a new world in America, is also learning how to adapt to being married, as his marriage was arranged and his wife did not travel with him to America at first. In a scene nearing the end of the story, the protagonist and his wife, Mala, go to visit Mrs. Croft once Mala has journeyed to America. The protagonist, up to this point, has been ambivalent about having a wife, but at this moment, with Mrs. Croft inspecting her, the protagonist “felt sympathy. [He] remembered [his] first days in London… Like [him], Mala had traveled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find” (195) and “as strange as it seemed, [he] knew in [his] heart that one day her [Mala’s] death would affect [him]” (195). But then Mrs. Croft, despite her old-fashioned ideas, declares Mala “a perfect lady!” (195), and the relationship between Mala and the protagonist grows from there.
It’s a story that feels slow, in parts, but never in a bad way. Lahiri has the reader sitting in the moment with the protagonist at all times. It’s a reflective piece, one of remembrance, and it suits itself just fine that way. It’s a fitting end to the collection.
All the stories in the collection are alike in that manner, the way the reader sits in the moment. There is a gentleness to the approach when discussing such human matters as love, sadness, hope. This collection is built on the ordinary lives that people live. Lahiri’s clarity of prose and dedication to understanding the human condition makes it an excellent and easy read. There is mention of some sensitive topics such as miscarriage, infidelity, and death. In general, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for refreshing prose and quality storytelling.
For me, Interpreter of Maladies was 5/5.