Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Published: June 28th 1999
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Literary Fiction / Short Stories | 198 pages
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When I hunkered down on my reading nook to finally read Interpreter of Maladies, I did so with a staunch determination to finish it in one or two sittings. I was giddy with an excitement that had been built up after months, perhaps years of hype and praise. I expected to be moved and transported to a literary Nirvana that had been promised by countless readers and reviewers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my experience.
After I finished reading this collection of 9 stories, I closed the book and thought that perhaps I read it wrong or from the wrong perspective or perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood or frame of mind. I was blaming myself for not enjoying it as much as I thought I should have. But then I remembered that I read primarily for pleasure. I am admittedly not a literary critic, nor do I pretend to be. This means that my reviews are always honest, personal, and subjective reactions.
Did I enjoy Interpreter of Maladies? Sure. 3.5 stars is a solid rating at Read Diverse Books and I do recommend it to fans of Jumpha Lahiri or even the generic literary fiction lover. But do temper your expectations; you may appreciate the stories more if you don’t expect a transcendent literary experience as I did. That’s never a good starting point. Lesson learned.
I want to talk about two of the most memorable stories to give you a sense of the themes and ideas Lahiri explores in this collection.
A Temporary Matter
- A story about a young couple, Shoba and Shukumar, whose marriage begins to deteriorate after their first child is stillborn. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection – several of the stories focus on marriages that are fractured and were ill-advised. The couple in this story barely speaks to one another, becoming “experts at avoiding each other,” and dreading the thought of attempting a conversation.
- But one week, their neighborhood received a notice that the lights will go out for one hour at eight p.m. for five days. During this hour, they ate in darkness broken by candle light and began to reveal secrets they had never confessed to each other. Shukumar is initially thrilled by their confessions and it rekindles a flame in the relationship that had been glaringly absent since their child’s death. However, this week of nightly confessions eventually leads to one Shukumar didn’t expect to hear.
This Blessed House
- This is my favorite of all the stories. It centers around another married Indian couple, Twinkle and Sanjeev, whose meeting was more or less arranged and then decide to marry after four months. We enter their lives two months later as they are moving into a house of their own. Sanjeev eventually learns that they are drastically different people and that perhaps he doesn’t know how he feels about his wife. Does he actually love her or even know her? He is puzzled by her quirkiness and her obsession with the Christian paraphernalia left behind in their home by the previous tenants (the most bizarre and enjoyable aspect of the story). This story is about how people sometimes resign themselves to certain fates or life trajectories even though they may not bring happiness and personal fulfillment.
I could delineate what I did and did not like about each individual story, but in the interest of time I will simply say that I did not have fun reading some of them. While they were all beautifully written and lyrical, some were boring, to be honest. However, that doesn’t meant I didn’t appreciate what Lahiri was trying to do or express.
I want to reiterate that I did find Interpreter of Maladies enjoyable overall. But my review was likely tainted by the lofty expectations I had set for it.
These are the stories of the mundane lives of ordinary people. Lahiri breathes life into these characters expertly, but I personally was not invested in about half of the stories – specifically the ones that focused on finding beauty in the mundanity of life. The other half were genuinely thoughtful and eloquent explorations of Indian and Indian-American identity rendered all the more poignant by the sense of loss and cultural transition that permeates many of the character’s lives.
When I read this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thahn Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” I will be sure to moderate my expectations. It shouldn’t be too hard because the novel is still fairly unknown and hasn’t built up a decade of praise and admiration.
How do you feel about reading critically acclaimed and award-winning works of literature? Do you feel pressured to enjoy them? And do you feel guilty if you don’t?
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