Summary and book reviews of Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2008,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2009,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

From the internationally best-selling, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, a superbly crafted new work of fiction: eight stories—longer and more emotionally complex than any she has yet written—that take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand as they enter the lives of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers.

In the stunning title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father, who carefully tends the earth of her garden, where he and his grandson form a special bond. But he’s harboring a secret from his daughter, a love affair he’s keeping all to himself. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a husband’s attempt to turn an old friend’s wedding into a romantic getaway weekend with his wife takes a dark, revealing turn as the party lasts deep into the night. In “Only Goodness,” a sister eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish, and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in “Hema and Kaushik,” a trio of linked stories—a luminous, intensely compelling elegy of life, death, love, and fate—we follow the lives of a girl and boy who, one winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome.

Unaccustomed Earth is rich with Jhumpa Lahiri’s signature gifts: exquisite prose, emotional wisdom, and subtle renderings of the most intricate workings of the heart and mind. It is a masterful, dazzling work of a writer at the peak of her powers.

Unaccustomed Earth

After her mother’s death, Ruma’s father retired from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for many decades and began traveling in Europe, a continent he’d never seen. In the past year he had visited France, Holland, and most recently Italy. They were package tours, traveling in the company of strangers, riding by bus through the countryside, each meal and museum and hotel prearranged. He was gone for two, three, sometimes four weeks at a time. When he was away Ruma did not hear from him. Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadn’t been a plane crash anywhere in the world.

Occasionally a postcard would arrive in Seattle, where Ruma and Adam and their son Akash lived. The postcards showed the facades of churches, stone fountains, crowded piazzas, terra-cotta rooftops mellowed by late ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Unaccustomed Earth, a dazzling collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize—winner Jhumpa Lahiri.


About This Book


In eight finely crafted stories, Jhumpa Lahiri explores the expectations, allegiances, and conflicts that both create and fray the ties between generations. The Bengali-American families she depicts struggle with doubts and uncertainties, emotional upheavals in their personal lives, and feelings of displacement in the face of cultural and social shifts and changes. Many of the characters cope with unsettling events and unanticipated feelings: a father and his ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Lahiri does not demand much from her readers. She does not ask that we stand back and admire her proseā€”no show-stopping literary antics here. She does not ask that we contend with unlikable characters. If her women make mistakes, they are well-intentioned ones, free of malice or selfishness or immaturity. She does not ask us to ride a melodramatic rollercoaster of a plot, for her stories are quiet and ordinary. Her distanced narration pads the impact of the stories, so that we read about many of the events without directly experiencing them. She simply asks that we pay attention and observe the details of her characters' worlds with as much care as she takes to portray them, trusting her to reveal their significance at the right emotional moment.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories: a reminder of Ms. Lahiri's appreciation of the wages of time and mortality and her understanding too of the missed connections that plague her husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends.

The Washington Post - Lily Tuck

Lahiri is far too accomplished and empathic a writer to relax her gaze; she excels at uncovering character and choosing detail.

The New York Times Book Review - Liesl Schillinger

Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.

Library Journal

The author's ability to flesh out completely even minor characters in every story, and especially in this trio of stories, is what will keep readers invested in the work until its heartbreaking conclusion.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals.

Kirkus Reviews

An eye for detail, ear for dialogue and command of family dynamics distinguish this uncommonly rich collection.

Reader Reviews
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Beyond the Book

The Origins of Sindoor

With supreme and economical skill, Jhumpa Lahiri uses only a few cultural signifiers to situate her characters in space and time. Almost all of the mothers in her stories, the women from the older generation who emigrate from India to the United States with their husbands, wear vermilion powder in their hair. Called sindoor, this powder is applied to the part of a Hindu bride's hair by her husband during their wedding ceremony, and is thereafter worn to signify her married status. Widows typically do not wear sindoor.

In this way, the meaning of sindoor is much simpler than that of the bindi, the bright red dot that many Indian ...

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