Short story collections can be a hard sell, and often people prefer to delve into a novel. Done right, on the other hand, they can fit together like pieces of a puzzle so that coming to the end provides the satisfaction of fitting the last piece to finally see the full picture. Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, gives one that pleasure and a picture of the life of Bengali families in America.
Transplanted Bengalis and their children's relationship to India and their new country are explored with a focus on the human relations of family and love. One reads of the pressure to be successful when successful only means Ivy League schools and doctorates, preferably in medicine or law. Traditional obedience and arranged marriages come under stress in the new country, but ultimately, as one reads in stories of cancer, heartbreak, and loss, Bengalis and their tight-knit communities adapt to dealing with universal sorrows as well as foreign ones, like alcoholism.
Until the second part of the book, that is, when the separate stories are related in a greater narrative, and connected thematically. Part Two: Hema and Kashuk is the highlight of the collection, as the two characters Hema and Kashuk tell stories to each other beginning in childhood. The interplay of perspective is enlightening, and when the protagonists find each other later in life, one feels the hope of happiness for them in their new love. I put down the book sincerely moved by the turn of events, and how they had unraveled through the various stories.
Unaccustomed Earth reminds me of what people look for in fiction: imaginative escape and new worlds. The many-layered portrayal of what love can mean to different people transcends cultures, and makes Lahiri's third book an intriguing read. While waiting for a fourth, try her novel The Interpreter of Maladies, for which she won the Pulitzer prize.