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First let me say that Jhumpa Lahiri is my goddess of literature. I read a lot - maybe 75 books a year - and I have rarely fallen under the spell of a book the way I did with Interpreter of Maladies. Her follow-up collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, was also an unqualified 5-star success.

So I was dying to get my hands on her new novel, The Lowland. I read through it eagerly but I closed the last page with mixed feelings.

Let's start with the good: Ms. Lahiri is a natural-born storyteller. In this book, she introduces two brothers, close in age who are poles apart - Udayan, the revolutionary brother who gets caught up in the Mao-inspired Naxalite movement to wipe out poverty in India and his more reserved and dutiful brother, Subhash, who leaves home to pursue an academic and scientific life in Rhode Island. When Udayan inevitably gets swept into a revolutionary movement that turns out badly, Subhash returns home -briefly - and picks up the pieces, including an attempt to heal the emotional scars of his brother's young wife.

As the plot goes on - and it is not my desire to encapsulate the plot or to create spoilers - about 70 years of family history is condensed into a mere 340 pages. Themes play out and then they play out again: the connections that make and break us, the intertwining to people we cannot truly see or know, the way we are defined by the place we call "home", the quiet differences we make in the world. It's all wound up in the history of India and indeed, Ms. Lahiri is at her very finest when she's describing Indian customs or lifestyles as only an insider can.

There's some lovely craftsmanship here, not bells and whistles, but quiet and contemplative -- even shimmering - moments. The problem is, I never found it to be very compelling. Because of all the years and generations (four of them) that Ms. Lahiri has to cover, she can only provide sketches of her characters. And they never truly come alive.

Yes, Udayan is the fiery revolutionary...but what made him so and why was he willing to sacrifice so much (the headiness of youth and a sense of fairness should only be the beginning). His wife, Guari, who eventually bonds with Subhash, was an enigma to be throughout. She is a distanced character, and her actions begin to feel somewhat predictable; the reader is never treated to her resonance and depth. And Bela, her daughter, is only revealed in limited emotional scope.

A novel, unlike a short story, demands a considerable emotional tension, a multi-textured richness that makes characters leap off the page. I never really sensed the two-dimensionality, possibly because the story line was multi-generational and ambitious. The litmus test of whether or not you will love this book is this: if you loved Namesake, this is definitely a book for you, since stylistically, there are similarities. If you are, instead, a fan of her short stories, you may or may not be engaged. Judge for yourself.
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VINE VOICEon August 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
One of the subjects of Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel is the relationship between historical and personal time, the way single lives can encompass remarkably different places and eras, the persistence of the past. It spans two continents and more than fifty years in the lives of several characters. As such, it's a difficult book to review without at least hinting at certain plot details that readers might like to discover for themselves. So those who want to experience the book with little or no sense of what happens should stop at the end of this paragraph for fear of SPOILERS. For them, and for those who prefer brief reviews, the next couple sentences will have to suffice. THE LOWLAND is an impressive, frequently moving novel, treating with quiet realism events that could easily have degenerated into melodrama. It expresses with new force the journey from mid-twentieth century India to contemporary America that has been a consistent feature of Lahiri's fiction, reminding us that for all the distance between here and there, then and now, these worlds are linked by those who have lived, loved, and suffered in both.

The title refers to a piece of land between two ponds in the neighborhood where Subhash and Udayan grow up, a space that floods every year during monsoon season and slowly drains. Subhash is the elder by fifteen months, but Udayan is more adventurous and more ambitious, the driving force, for example, behind their childhood scheme to sneak into an exclusive country club whose British amenities offer a sharp contrast to the rest of their Calcutta life. As the brothers reach adulthood, Subhash decides to travel to the United States for an education, while Udayan is drawn toward the Naxalites, a militant Communist movement. But despite diverging paths, they remain loyal to each other, even when Udayan goes against tradition by selecting his own wife, a girl named Gauri. And when the lowland becomes the site of sudden tragedy, Subhash makes a decision that will alter the family's lives forever.

That decision is intended to put the past behind them. But of course the past is not so easily escaped. There are losses from which some of us, like Subhash's and Udayan's mother, cannot recover. Even decades later, when Subhash and Gauri are elderly professionals living what seem like ordinary American lives, when the world they knew has become fodder for historical analyses by their fellow academics, they are still haunted at times by what has been taken from them, and by the choices that resulted. Subhash remains reserved, hesitant, forever moving in the shadow of his more outgoing younger brother. Gauri is still fleeing what she saw and did in Calcutta in the 1970s. Another of the novel's characters, Bela, first appears as a child, and in her toddler's mind "yesterday" means any part of the past, even if it was years ago. In emotional terms, she's not wrong-- forty years ago might as well be yesterday, if what's being remembered matters enough. Our minds are like the lowland, quick to flood but slow to drain. We suffer, we cause suffering, we regret... and yet we go on.

It's that simple truth of human endurance that makes THE LOWLAND so effective in its reserved way. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here, no straining for effect, only an account of what is done and why, with occasional description of the ways in which the physical world reflects or mocks the emotions of the moment. It's more than enough. Lahiri doesn't need to go to great, unnatural lengths to exoticize India; the juxtaposition of Gauri's life as a young wife and daughter-in-law in Calcutta with her distinguished middle age as a philosophy professor speaks for itself. So too does the passage where a visiting Bela is drawn to that country club, but not because it is unlike her (American) home; instead, it is familiar. Lahiri tracks political, social, and technological evolution and difference across decades and nations, yet her characters remain recognizable despite great variation in circumstance. The simple acknowledgment of external change and internal continuity is true to life, subtly tragic, but not without a sense of hope. We cannot escape what we've done, what's been done to us, but perhaps we can survive it.

Even when we don't necessarily deserve to. One of the novel's key features is its portrait of emotional ruthlessness, which is the darker side of endurance. You might think that someone who does what Gauri does, sees what Gauri sees, would be-- would deserve to be-- swallowed by her regrets, and yet she isn't. Too often even nominally complex literary fiction is inclined to minimize its characters' failings, or to offer trite narratives of repentance and forgiveness. Lahiri isn't interested in that. In a key scene one character toys with the kind of dramatic gesture less worthwhile fiction would turn to, before proving too human to be capable of it. In their morality as in the overall arc of their lives, her characters are credible, complicated, forever pulling themselves forward and being drawn backward. This conflict between old and new is one of fiction's timeless themes, and THE LOWLAND gracefully reinvigorates it by tying it to a specific historical moment in which the contrast between the two was especially striking, and poignant.
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VINE VOICEon September 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
As someone who loved The Namesake, perhaps my expectations were too high. I was really hoping The Lowland would be great. Unfortunately, for me, it fell flat.

Brothers Subhash (the responsible serious one) and Udayan (15 months younger, and the rebellious one) grew up together in Calcutta during the politically tumultuous 60's. After college, Subhash heads to the US to further his studies, Udayan stays in Calcutta and becomes involved in a political uprising. When he is killed, leaving behind a pregnant wife, Subhash steps in and fills the role of husband to widowed Gauri and father to his niece-to-be.

The Pros: This is a period in history I knew very little about. Lahiri does a great job of summarizing the political landscape of India in the 1960's. I loved learning how the politics of post-colonial India tied to Maoist China, Castro's Cuba, and Che Guevara. For exmple, I had no idea that Castro destroyed most of Cuba's golf courses when he came into power. Fascinating! It's easy to see how communist ideals could take hold in such a class-divided society.

The Cons: I found almost all of the characters in this novel insufferable. Not only did I not connect with them, few of them connected with each other. There wasn't really anyone to root for. I don't necessarily have to like the characters to appreciate a book, but it helps to understand their motivations. I never could decide if these folks were behaving selflessly, making decisions they thought would be best for their loved-ones, or selfishly trying to maximize their own situation at others' cost. Maybe they didn't really know either. Frustrating. The other issue I had was with the pacing of the book. It was very inconsistent. Some chapters provided detailed accounts of days or weeks, while others covered years in a couple of pages. For some reason, it made it difficult for me to get lost in the story.

Conclusion: This book is fine, but not my favorite. If it had been my first Jhumpa Lahiri, I'd be unlikely to pick up another of her works. But, having previously read The Namesake I still look forward to her next book. This just wasn't a good fit for me.
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on November 23, 2013
I hate to give Ms. Lahiri a bad review because I am such a devout fan of her writing. I adored all her previous works and have actually reread two of them. When I heard The Lowland was available I rushed to order it but unfortunately it was a great disappointment.

Imagine you're back in high school. (Pick your most hated class and insert yourself.) The textbook in front of you is marred with doodles and your eyes keep slipping off the page you are supposed to be reading to stare at a squashed piece of bubble gum, a ribbon of dust, a classmates bookbag slathered with stickers and profanity. You will stare at ANYTHING but the book in front of you. That's how The Lowland feels. The text blurs. The words swarm. It's when will the bell ring get me out of here exasperating.

The most critical problem for me is that the main characters are like sketches in a storyboard. Slashes of ink not even carefully executed. I kept waiting for Lahiri to start filling them in -- to drench them with color and jolt them to life the way she's done with all her previous characters but she never does. She observes them from a distance. And it is such a great gaping breadth that they simply blur into the contrastive landscapes they inhabit. The book is like a watercolor painting tipped sideways before it's dried: the brother's skin streams into sky. Their black eyes bleed into The Lowland. They strip away the scenery. They impale the sun.

The bulk of the novel focuses on the Indian landscape. On radical politics. On poverty and wealth. On communism and Marxism and differences in Western and Eastern philosophy. Ms. Lahiri writes about all these things very intelligently however I didn't find it enough to make up for the lack of characterization. If you don't need bold, indelible characters with crisp, unmistakable features you might enjoy this book.
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VINE VOICEon July 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I don't read a lot of mainstream fiction, but Jhumpa Lahiri is one name that always gets my attention, and her latest book is as good as, if not better than her previous efforts. Even though her characters (typically Bengalis transplanted to the United States) could hardly be farther from my experience, she manages to make them alive and makes us care about what happens to them. And her descriptions of place are so vivid that I felt that I'd been to Calcutta. The book is nominally about the contrasting experiences of two brothers, but that's just what gets things rolling: it's a saga of three (and more) generations of a family dealing with the encounter of two cultures which are very different (and yet in many ways very much the same), and with the moral choices that confront them.
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on March 2, 2014
You know those people who spend their professional lives getting degree after degree and teaching in academia, with their personal lives revolving around the minutae of everyday family life, then they think there's a viable story to derive from it all? That's what this book is, complete with being set at the university where she's spent significant time in her academic life. Add on top of that significant establishment credibility from some writing she did over a decade ago and you have the disaster this book is.

It is just poorly written. Every lifeless sentence was painful to get through, yet get through all of them I did, regularly glancing at page numbers, eagerly counting down to 340. She writes like an academic - every sentence considered, measured. Every plot point articulated in full, logical order with the feeling of being intensely workshopped to death by committee. The result is that a promising book about an impassioned love affair cut short and the devastating quest to reclaim that passion in so many other aspects of life lacks all spontaneity.

I'd read the complaints that she shows and doesn't tell, but I never imagined it would be taken to such an extreme: This happened, then that happened, and he felt that way about it. Now I will go on at length telling you about a person checking into a hotel.

I understand she's going for a play on the theme of time, but I just finished reading Point Omega by Don Delillo and he captures it far better in about 1/3 of the pages.

Be warned - the heaps of praise on the back jacket have the caveat of small print that it's praise - likely 10-15 years old - of the author, not this book.

Minor spoilers to illustrate my point, but I'll be vague:

Straight person embarking on a lesbian love affair? Begun and over in a page.
Reconnecting with an old friend after decades? Told they spent a lot of time together reconnecting and then dead, all within a page.
Revealing a major secret at the heart of the plot? The person most victimized by it is good with it within a few pages.
But have trouble sleeping at night and use it as an opportunity to go on and on explicitly stating the themes and tensions of the book? Well, that's most of the book.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the story itself (beyond the poor writing quality, by a creative writing teacher no less). The experiences don't strike me as being based on human nature. A lot of people raise kids who aren't their own. A lot of bad things happen to people but the resiliency of human nature and time move their lives forward. With all of these characters, major and minor, they seem endlessly consumed by a moment, by a person who left them decades ago. For supposedly religious Indians, they also seem locked in a particularly materialist worldview, having no relation to the larger nuances of the cosmos - living out their lives as if someone lost to this world is lost to all worlds.

The best guess I have for why so many praise this book is that it's bland soap opera / Bollywood level story telling with the pedigree of literature. It's simple, tells you what to think, how you're supposed to feel, but perhaps makes people feel smart and internationally cultured for having read it. I've found a sure sign that an author seems to recognize s/he has no story is when s/he keeps reiterating the core tensions so you know what they are and can be tricked into thinking you're feeling them.

I will take others' word for it that her previous works were better. If that's the case, I think she needs a new theme. She's taken up the western immigrant Indian one, but in reality she was born in London and moved to the U.S. as a young child. She is writing about experiences second-hand on behalf of her parents, who were genuine immigrants from India to the west, and seems to have tapped that well dry.

Perhaps some time away from academia, gathering life experience, would help her find a new voice. As it is, I agree with the LA Times that this feels like a rough draft, an author trying to explicitly lay out the story she wants to tell before going back to actually tell that story.

If I sound harsh, it's because works of this nature are given prime shelf space and publishing opportunities based not on their own merits but on the legacy of an author's previous works and name recognition. They need to be held to a higher standard.
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VINE VOICEon August 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have to say I'm surprised by all the rave reviews for this book. While I enjoyed Lahiri's other books and was excited to get this one, I really had to push to get through it. Yes, her writing is beautiful, but most of the time, she failed to pull me into the story. There were snippets here and there where I began to feel invested in the characters and story, but then she would go into long summaries that "told" the reader what had happened rather than having us experience the story so that I never really felt like I cared much about the characters or what they were going through. For a passionate story of love, revolution, and family turmoil--the reading of it was rather passionless and left me flat. Sorry.
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on October 22, 2013
There is no doubt that Jhumpa Lahiri is a talented writer, but The Lowland is one of the most depressing books I have read in a long time. Considering the underlying passion that motivated the life altering decisions of the main characters, this book was oddly devoid of passion. The reader does not get caught up in fervor of Udayan's social activism, the highs and lows of the marital relationships, and the depth of the parent - child bonds. Instead you view all of these moments at arm's length, only feeling the sadness, isolation and futility of all of (with the possible exception of Bela) their lives. The Lowland is not a book that will have you tearing up as you experience joy and sorrow through well drawn characters in turmoil. Rather, it is more of an intellectual exercise that will give you plenty to think about when you are done, but will not touch you in your heart.
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VINE VOICEon September 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Unlike some of the other reviewers I did not find the characters well developed and I thought the plot was jerky and discontinuous. Will try to explain what I mean without including any spoilers.

Supposedly the two brothers - Subhash and Udayan - were very close to each other and the early narrative which details their escapades as they trespass on Tollygunj Clubs grounds bear this out. This is also the best part of the book. But afterward there is no closeness. Udayan's drift into Naxalism is unknown to Subhash and the latter has no knowledge that his brother was getting involved with a girl.

I find many plot elements downright unbelievable. For example, Udayan is killed and this is a major disruption in the family life. Subhash drops everything and rushes back from the US to lend support. Yet neither of his parents will tell him what happened for unexplained reasons and he has to wait for days to get the story from his brother's widow. One of the characters suddenly - and unconvincingly - switches sexual orientation. This episode does not develop the character and does not move the story line. I have to believe that this was thrown in merely to titillate readers and elicit favorable reviews because of the 'depth' so revealed.

Some good depictions of life in Kolkata and the descriptions of that period of Naxalite turmoil are excellent. I lived through this personally and left Kolkata for Delhi precisely because of the violence, so I have first hand knowledge of the events she describes. Would have given the book five stars if the rest of it was up to the same standard.
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on November 13, 2013
I remember liking The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, so I was looking forward to the latest from Jhumpa Lahiri, but it just didn't hook me. Lahiri is a gorgeous writer who really has a way with the subtle details; while this was no different, I just wasn't connecting with any of the characters. All of the characters in this book--except maybe Udayan, but he isn't around long enough-- spend most of their lives isolated and unhappy because of their own choices. I wanted to shake them all, tell them they deserved better and to stop punishing themselves, and send them to the doctor for a prescription for anti-depression meds.

While I can understand how the themes of family and culture could resonate with some people, I just can't get into a book if there isn't a single character I care about. I finished this book in the hopes that it would culminate with some sort of revelation or climax, but it just sort of petered our with some characters being less melancholy than they started.
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