I was asked to join a book group, and the first selection was the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. I had read her Pulitzer-Prize winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, last year, and liked it well enough—but I don’t recall feeling that it was the best choice for the Pulitzer or that she was soon to become one of my favorite writers. But, wow, The Lowland—this is a beautiful book.
The novel follows the lives of two brothers raised in Calcutta, one of whom stays in India while the other goes off to the States to study. Their paths diverge in stark ways, until one brother’s choices throw his wife into the life of the other. Back in Rhode Island, basically estranged from their families, Subhash and Gauri live with their daughter Bela carrying deep secrets that threaten everything: their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with their careers.
The novel spans about seventy years, and Lahiri deals with this by playing with time. Some passages snail along; then, there will be a ten-year gap between chapters. She compresses three—no, four—generations into under four hundred pages. At the end of those 340 pages, I felt sure I could have read another hundred.
In the book group, reactions were somewhat mixed. Some felt Lahiri had not developed certain characters or scenes well enough. But for me the book was almost perfect. It managed to be technically excellent—so I was reading it thinking, wow, that sentence is exactly what it should be—and also emotionally knifing. I kept rereading passages not because I was confused about what had happened but because I wanted to feel, again, the immense pain and tragedy she manages to render in a few short sentences. The book’s themes are relevant and important to me: it’s about motherhood and parenting, about being a parent—and a child; and about career and women’s difficult choices around career. It’s a book about revolution and tradition and the bonds of family.
Here’s a teaser:
He was never invited into the room. For some months he received no indication of Bela’s progress. Sitting in the waiting area, with a view of the door Bela and Dr. Grant were on the other side of, made him feel worse. He used the hour to buy groceries for the week. He timed the appointments, and waited for her in the parking lot, in the car. When it was over she sat beside him, shutting the door.
How did it go today, Bela?
It’s still a help to you?
Would you like to go to a restaurant for dinner?
I’m not hungry.
Would you like to write her a letter? Try to speak to her on the phone?
She shook her head. It was lowered, her brow furrowed. Her shoulders were hunched, pressed toward one another, as tears fell.