Review: Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

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.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa LahiriAfter 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. 

P.S. –

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?

Thank you for reading! Enter your email below for frequent updates from RDB.

Receive New Posts By Email

34 thoughts on “Review: Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. I totally feel guilty when I don’t like a book as much as I “should.” In fact, even when one other person tells me they liked (or did not like) a book that I didn’t (or did like), I always wonder what I missed.

    I have not read this one but am intrigued based on your disappointment. Adding it to the list.

  2. I read for pleasure too, so I have no qualms about disliking a book even if it is award winning. What’s the point if you don’t enjoy the book? I know that for a lot of readers it can sometimes be about adding a notch to your literary belt. For example, I’m still about half way through Freedom by Jonathan Franzen which I totally took on as an english major ego trip. Although it’s pretty good, I got bored at a certain point and um, I just started reading something more interesting haha. I intend to go back to Freedom, but I’m curious as to how you feel about leaving books half way? IMO, there are so many great books out there that I hate to waste time reading something that I’m not enjoying unless I have to.
    Also, have you read The Namesake or any of her other works? How did it compare? Just curious.

    1. I used to obsess about always finishing every book I read, but then I realized how miserable I would sometimes feel. Eventually I grew up and saw how silly I was being and that the reason I read is to have fun, be entertained, and of course learn along the way if that is the intent. If a book bores me or makes me sleepy every time I read it, I have learned to put it away.

      There were parts of Interpreter of Maladies that I found boring, but thankfully, the short story format allowed me to see a change of scenery every 20 pages.

      Yes, I read The Namesake in college and thought it was great! I really liked Gogol and his family and was happy to follow their journey through the years. I do like Lahiri’s writing, so I will definitely be reading more of her work.

  3. I do feel more pressure to like a book that everyone else likes, for sure. But, it doesn’t always happen. And, it’s often fun to read a point of view that’s different from the majority! It’s hard to be the one writing it, though. 🙂
    However, it sounds like you still liked this one overall. The 2 stories you describe sound great! I have this book, but just haven’t read it yet. Your review doesn’t scare me off at all – I still plan to read it sometime. I read The Namesake a few years ago, and liked it a lot. Have you read any of her other books?

    1. Yeah, I did like it overall but It’s not going into any of my “best of” lists.
      You should definitely still read it. You may even love it.
      The Name sake was great, I remember Gogol and his family fondly. 🙂

  4. I had a similar experience reading “Middlemarch” recently. Some people say it is the best novel written in the English language. I was hugely disappointed by it. Don’t get what the praise is about.

    1. I haven’t read Middlemarch nor do I plan to any time soon, but I imagine I would be inevitably underwhelmed. There are thousands of people who love and praise it, so I don’t feel too guilty.

      1. I do not remember right now, just remember the contexts of certain stories. Plus I am not sure whether they are from Interpreter of maladies or Unaccustomed Earth. I would be doing some short story reviews n a few months when I will revisit the book.

  5. Isn’t The Namesake by her as well? I read that and I wasn’t blown away. Could be because I saw the movie first. But it’s kept me from reading anything else that’s hyped.

    1. Yes, she wrote The Namesake. haha, it’s funny because I really enjoyed that novel.
      Reviews are very personal and subjective, so people aren’t always going to agree. It’s always up to the reader to decide despite what other reviewers will say.

      If you didn’t enjoy The Namesake, then I don’t recommend Interpreter of Maladies. Unless you have an obsession with reading all Pulitzer Prize winners or something.

      1. Not at all. I only got it because I wanted to read the book after the movie. And she’s supposed to be Indian and I’m Indian and there’s that lets support diverse authors thing. Lol

  6. I enjoyed your review. I’ve only read her book The Namesake, and loved it. The Lowland is on my TBR. When I read that one, I’ll probably add this one to my list. That first story you described sounds fascinating!

    I don’t think I feel pressure to love acclaimed books. Maybe sometimes I feel confused if I don’t, like maybe i missed something, but more often I just say, well, I’m glad I read it because (X.) It didn’t really work for me, moving on. I think literary awards are so subjective. I am happy when one of my favorites wins an award, though! I was darn near freaking out when Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for History of Seven Killings!

    1. I loved The Namesake too. I think you will like Interpreter of Maladies as well.

      Wow, you finished A Brief History of Seven Killings? I am so disappointed in myself for having to put it aside because I found it very dense and complicated. One day I will have to pick it up again. I do commend you for finish it. I’m sure it’s a great book.

      1. It took me a couple of weeks, but once I let myself sink into the patois, I found that I became surprisingly attached to the characters, even the ones who do awful things. James has a marvelous way of connecting emotionally to everyone, even the characters who should be wholly despicable. I need to buy that one and try to read it again someday, I loved it so much.

    1. I used to think short stories were boring too, haha. But I simply wasn’t reading the right ones.
      It wasn’t until the last 6 months that I started reading short story collections and it’s been a blast.

      Two short story collections I strongly recommend are – Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho and Falling In Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson. They’re both reviewed on my blog

  7. This is my problem with prizes shortlists. I often buy shortlisted books, but then I expect a lot, which in a way puts them in worse position than books I randomly picked. It’s way more difficult for such book to amaze me. Recently this happened to me with A Spool of blue Thread, I expected a lot and ended up with perfectly nice novel, but not a masterpiece in my opinion. Like you I thought maybe I didn’t give the book enough time, or was in the wrong frame of mind. Then I realized I a reading for myself, not to write only great reviews. All in all I totally support everyone’s right to expressing their subjective opinions, I think this is what makes book blogs interesting, they are personal!

  8. Oh, I adored The Interpreter of Maladies, mostly because I do love domestic stories and reading about daily life.

    I’ve read “This Blessed House” twice and had a different reaction and interpretation each time. The first time I thought ‘this marriage is doomed.’ The second time I was happy to think ‘How lovely! They are making this work!’ Did you have your own interpretation?

  9. I’m happy that you adored it! I can definitely understand why.

    I’m not sure how to interpret This Blessed House. Their future of their relationship was left so uncertain in the end. I can’t imagine that Sanjeev was very happy with the outcome, but he seemed resigned to remain in the relationship, whether or not it would lead to marital bliss. But how many marriages actually do? haha

  10. I actually really enjoyed this novel when I read it especially the titular story. It’s one of the few short story collections I wished I had written. I read it during a period of time when I took a break from blogging and it’s one of the novels I read during that period that I really regret not reviewing for my blog. Sorry you didn’t like it. Have you read Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”? or Aravind Adiga’s “White Tiger”. Those are three of my favorite Indian authors.

    1. Yeah, the titular story was also one of my favorites. It was a good example of the mundane made extraordinary through Lahiri’s writing.

      I have read only a few Indian authors. But I’m trying to fix that! Thanks for the recommendations.
      Will be reading R.K. Narayan soon. I do own The God of Small Things, of course. I just haven’t read it yet. >.<

      1. “…a good example of the mundane made extraordinary through Lahiri’s writing.” EXACTLY!! It didn’t have a convuluted, never-before-seen plot but it was so good. And yeah I hope you’ll like Arundhati when you eventually get to it.

  11. (Finally got a chance to comment on this post) Great review! You’re a good writer – I like how this was reviewed, even though this wasn’t a fave of yours lol. I really liked this collection – I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. I found 1 or 2 stories a bit boring. But on the whole, I liked how the stories seemed effortlessly written – if that makes sense. Lahiri’s writing hits home with its accuracy in the depictions and descriptions of certain topics Eg: the story ‘Sexy’. The way she wrote about unrequited love felt so so real lol. Anyways, I think its A-okay to not be on the bandwagon with other readers who love certain books – everybody’s preferences are different!

    1. Yay, you found your way back to my review 😀 Thank you.
      Lahiri’s writing really is effortless. You can tell it comes naturally to her. She excels at writing about every-day life and cultural displacement.

      I may enjoy these stories if I reread them in the future. Even now, a few of the stories stand out as really memorable and moving.

Let's start a discussion!