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Unaccustomed Earth Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 1, 2008

4.3 out of 5 stars 473 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Following her thoughtful first novel, The Namesake (2003), which has been made into a meditative film, Lahiri returns to the short story, the form that earned her the Pulitzer Prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The tight arc of a story is perfect for Lahiri’s keen sense of life’s abrupt and painful changes, and her avid eye for telling details. This collection’s five powerful stories and haunting triptych of tales about the fates of two Bengali families in America map the perplexing hidden forces that pull families asunder and undermine marriages. “Unaccustomed Earth,” the title story, dramatizes the divide between immigrant parents and their American-raised children, and is the first of several scathing inquiries into the lack of deep-down understanding and trust in a marriage between a Bengali and non-Bengali. An inspired miniaturist, Lahiri creates a lexicon of loaded images. A hole burned in a dressy skirt suggests vulnerability and the need to accept imperfection. Van Eyck’s famous painting, The Arnolfini Marriage, is a template for a tale contrasting marital expectations with the reality of familial relationships. A collapsed balloon is emblematic of failure. A lost bangle is shorthand for disaster. Lahiri’s emotionally and culturally astute short stories (ideal for people with limited time for pleasure reading and a hunger for serious literature) are surprising, aesthetically marvelous, and shaped by a sure and provocative sense of inevitability. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1615554912
  • ISBN-13: 978-1615554911
  • ASIN: 0307265730
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (473 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James Hiller VINE VOICE on April 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn out soil. My children ... shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." This quote, which was a revelation to me, so much so that I redid my work e-mail "inspiration quote" signature to put it it, is the inspiration of Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of short stories called "Unaccustomed Earth".

This is the first book I have read of hers, and it simply does not disappoint. Eight stories are so intricately woven with their words and themes that each in itself is a beautiful work of art, and yet together, form the basis of a masterpiece. Former author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake (movie tie-in edition), Lahiri's carrying on her success with this new bunch. The book starts with the story named after the book, a story about a Bengali woman named Ruma and her father who comes to visit her from Pennsylvania. Cultures and expectations collide as these two virtual strangers learn to exist with each other without the familiar glue of her mother, who passed away only months before. A garden, her mixed race son, and a secret love, permeate the layers of this opening story that literally leave you breathless by stories end. Similar themes are woven through the other seven stories, some which I liked more than others, but all of them written with such scope and craft.
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Format: Hardcover
With UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Jhumpa Lahiri can lay claim with good reason to being the finest short story writer in America today. This book, her second collection of short stories with the full-length novel THE NAMESAKE sandwiched between, is a masterful collection of affecting tales about family life and individual self-discovery. While Lahiri's focus is relentlessly drawn toward what might be termed the "Bengali-American experience," her stories express rich underlying elements of universality, allowing them to transcend the mere "new American immigrant" genre. She shows yet again that she is a marvelous craftswoman of the short story art form and its language (words, imagery, and symbolism).

UNACCUSTOMED EARTH is eight stories, divided into two sections. The first section contains five distinct short stories, beginning with the near-novella length title story that is certainly the collection's finest. In that piece, a daughter of Indian descent, Ruma, welcomes her unexpectedly widowered father with trepidation to her new home in Seattle. Ruma is married to a Caucasian named Adam, and they have a young son named Akash. In every respect the young family is a model of mixed marriage and, in Ruma's case, full cultural assimilation. Nevertheless, her father's visit promises to force Ruma to confront the inevitable fissures that appear between first and second generation immigrant families. Travel to new countries or settling into new lands, postcards of foreign places, the soil in gardening, and measurement of distances all serve in symbolic support to the story's title, but it is a simple misplaced and unmailed postcard that pulls everything together into a poignant ending.

Lahiri's other four stories in the first section have similar themes.
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I don't want to criticize Jhumpa for always choosing the same milieu and the same class of Ivy League privileged Bengali families in the US. It's all well known and she doesn't try to deny it. But what seems most disappointing about her writing is that we have the impression she is constantly recycling the same characters, who although sometimes flawed, always seem somewhat too well planned out and not real enough. They want to live beyond the constraints of their cultural up-bringing, but they never really expand their experience beyond occasionally marrying an American. The short story that stood out the most for me was "Nobody's business" where the author finally strays from the usual plot; that of a mixed marriage, but the plot still seems to dance around marriage and education.
Ms Lahiri's writing is mostly quite pleasant, skilled and at times a brilliantly put together prose, yet it lacks luster or humor. The characters, like the story lines are always on the verge of exploding, on the verge of something meaningful happing to them, yet they always stop short and the endings inevitably seem underwhelming.
The emotions that she tries so hard to elicit in the reader feel contrived. Having read numerous comparisons to Alice Munro, I was expecting much more, but if you are looking for an enjoyable read on the plane, I'd whole heartedly recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover
Finishing this collection of carefully wrought and longish short stories was bittersweet. Lahari is a master of character study, and it's difficult to believe she's still a young woman. Her descriptions of her multigenerational, mostly Bengali immigrant, characters felt intimate and usually sympathetic. The details may be Indian, but the emotions are universal. I can't think of any writer today who can so closely render the complicated interactions of adults and their offspring.

Two things are remarkable about these stories. One is the way she moves around from one point of view to another quite easily so that we see a situation from the standpoints of several characters. Lahiri switches smoothly in and out of various perspectives until she has rendered a little gem of a tale.

The second remarkable characteristic is the way she ends a story. It's not the classic O Henry ending where there's a twist that catches you by surprise and may not make sense entirely but what I think of now as a Lahiri ending, a devastating insight that takes your breath away. There's not an unsatisfying conclusion in any of the eight stories that make up this collection.
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