I’ve gone through a half dozen copies of this book. I keep giving away my copy in a shameless bid to convince the recipient to read the opening story. If they’d like to read further, fine, but I’m not going to stamp my feet and insist. It’s potentially embarrassing to confess ambivalence towards most of a book when that book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I’m going to do it anyway. The first story of Interpreter of Maladies, “A Temporary Matter,” is why the collection won. The other stories are merely good enough. Lahiri floats on the brilliance of her first story but cannot recreate its magic in any of the others.
When reading this collection, I would suggest blocking out a chunk of time. Lahiri’s writing is not dense, but it does not read quickly. I have heard this from friends as well. Her simplistic writing style encourages you to slow naturally as you might when walking through a scenic area on a nice day, because it’s pleasant.
“A Temporary Matter” follows Shoba and Shukumar after the death of their first child and takes place over the course of one week. The couple has been driven apart through grief, but they come back together in the evenings when, for one hour each night, the power is out for a line to be repaired. Their candlelit dinners and conversation bring intimacy back into their relationship and they begin confessing things to one another. The end is such an emotional kick that I’m continually amazed by how I can feel such emotion after a scant twenty pages that I’ve read a dozen times.
If you’re new to Jhumpa Lahiri, her trademark is writing about cultural isolation either in India or in America. Many of her characters, here and in her novel The Namesake, are Indians who have moved to America and have adjusted to American norms to various degrees. Food is of tremendous importance in all her stories, primarily the preparation of Indian food as a way to maintain a link with an old identity. Unfortunately, because each story in this collection investigates this same theme, stories that would otherwise be unique feel repetitive. By the time you reach the final story, you feel as though you’re reading something you’ve read before when you haven’t. Though independently adequate, her stories overlap in ways that I call (with great hesitation!) repetitive. If you space out these stories, instead of reading them in a row as I tend to read collections, you may enjoy them more.
Beyond their subject matter, all the stories are written in the same concise, impersonal tone. I praised this writing style when discussing “A Temporary Matter” because Lahiri’s sterile voice works well when chronicling the lives of people who have drifted apart. It works less well in other stories that require an emotional investment in characters’ relationships. Though she creates a varied cast of characters—young vs. old, male vs. female, Indian vs. American—her characters are ultimately discussed and characterized with this same clinical voice. Add to this that while the first story has an explosive climax, most of the others end quietly: a discovery is made, and the story ends sans consequences. Without clear endings, and no delineation of tone despite the variety of characters, it’s hard to move from one story to the next with complete satisfaction.
So take the stories singly and her voice won’t have time to shift to a monotone in your mind’s ear. This was something that had nagged at me about this collection for years, but I couldn’t find a way to express it until reading The Namesake a couple weeks ago. The beginning of the book is written with Gogol’s parents as the focus, the middle with Gogol at the center, and a brief section is given over to one of his lovers, but there is no shift in the overall tone from section to section. Gogol speaks the way his mother does which is the way his girlfriend speaks and so on. Lahiri writes with the voice of a deeply disinterested narrator, at times an uninterested narrator. Again and again, she struggled to build and retain tension in The Namesake as the rising actions read like a list, each with enough detail to confuse the central point. But in writing short stories, she is forced to pare her story down to its main lines and her writing is better for it.
Now if she could just mix it up a little.
Overall: 4.0 (out of 5.0) “A Temporary Matter” is really just that good. I suspect that the other stories, when taken singly, are better than I think they are. Does it make sense to say they’re so polished and politic as to be impersonal? This may trouble other people less than it troubles me.