Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, released in 2013 and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins in the neighborhood of Tollygunge in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, born 15 months apart, sneaking into the Tolly Golf Club. Subhash is beaten by a police officer when the boys are caught, and the incident seems to change their personalities as they grow up. Subhash becomes cautious, careful. Udayan’s anger at the police officer blooms into an interest in the Indian communist Naxalite movement by the time he is in college. The boys drift apart as Subhash becomes increasingly concerned by Udayan’s politics. Subhash decides to go to graduate school in Rhode Island. His brother writes him letters about his activities, including his marriage to Gauri. When Udayan is killed, Subhash travels back to Calcutta and meets Gauri, living in his parents’ home. They ignore her, and he begins to feel sympathy for her, especially after learning she is carrying Udayan’s child. He offers to marry her, and she agrees, traveling with him to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape her past. However, the terrible secret she keeps, which is not revealed until near the novel’s end, and the specter of Udayan cast a pall over the marriage.

While I can’t exactly say that I struggled through the first half of this novel, I will say it didn’t truly grab me until the second half. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Early in my reading, I might put it down for days at a time before picking it up again. I managed to pick up and finish two other books in the course of reading The Lowland. However, after Gauri became interested in education and started attending philosophy classes, I found myself fully engaged. Gauri emerged as the most fascinating character for me. I was actually surprised in the end when her secret was revealed, and the two most moving parts of the book for me were her final confrontation with both her daughter, Bela, and her trip back to Kolkata to see the Lowland where Udayan was killed. Gauri emerged for me as a fully realized character, a real person with a great deal of depth. I know that whenever Gauri was on the page, I sat up straight and pulled the book a little closer. Michiko Kakutani feels that Lahiri did not give Gauri enough psychological complexity for the reader to understand why she left the way she did, but I disagree. I feel that her actions are difficult to understand until she reveals her truth. In some way, Gauri feels like a bomb, I think, and removing herself from those who love her is her way of saving them and protecting them in the way she could not save two men who died—who she feels she plays some part in killing. What Gauri has done, both in Calcutta and after she arrives in America, is unforgivable. However, I think it was also very human. If one character doesn’t emerge as fully realized for me, it’s the adult Bela.To me, it’s her adult choices and actions that don’t make sense.

By the time Subhash and Gauri settled in Rhode Island and Bela was born, I found this book captivating and difficult to put down. Lahiri is at her best when she is describing the ways immigrant families navigate living in the United States, which is what made The Namesake such a success. This book is described as more ambitious than her earlier work, and it is perhaps that ambition that makes the novel a bit unwieldy. Michael Cunningham says in “First Love,” an essay he writes about discovering the novel Mrs. Dalloway, that “Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own.” Where this novel struggles, if it does, is that it tries to be the novel for all the characters—Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and even Udayan and Subhash’s mother. Would it have been more even if Lahiri focused on one character? Maybe. But the result is a rich tapestry of a beautiful and moving book.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember how long ago I put this on my to-read list, but it was a long time ago, and I have had the book for a while as well, so I am counting it as my second book for the Backlist Reader Challenge. Though this novel begins in the 1950’s, I am not counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge because it does go to the present and is not completely set in the past.

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Sunday Post #20: Summertime

Sunday PostLooks like summer is starting pretty much all over (at least in the northern hemisphere). I’m beginning to see vacation pics on Facebook, and I’ve been eying my TBR pile, looking for good summertime reads.

I have a bit of a busy summer ahead. I am going to at least four teaching workshops. If anyone tries to tell you teachers don’t work during the summer, don’t you believe it. In addition, I have a new course to plan.

This week, I finished two books. The first I’ve already reviewed: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. The second I have not yet reviewed, but will review and post about tomorrow (so good that it really needs its own post rather than a review rolled into the Sunday Post): We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Both were audio books.

I am still finishing up Walden, though my other books are on a bit of a hiatus, with the exception of I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. I don’t know if other readers do this or not, but I have to have at least one paper book, one e-book, and one audio book going at all times. The paper books I can read in the tub without fear of destroying an expensive device. The e-books I can read pretty much everywhere, including in bed with the lights off, so I don’t disturb my husband. The audio books I can listen to while I do housework or make soap.

I love to read books set in my adopted home state of Massachusetts, so that was one reason why I liked We Were Liars so much, and I admit, seeing Massachusetts as a setting will push a book higher on my list. Here is a partial list of some of my favorite Massachusetts reads.

           

Some I’m looking forward to diving into or finishing:

    

I wonder if other readers are like me and like to read about places they have lived. I also certainly read a lot of books set elsewhere, too.

I added some books to my TBR list this week:

 

I know what you’re thinking: some variation of either “why haven’t you read The Things They Carried?” or “why wasn’t it already on your list”? It sort of was on my list, to address the second question, but now an oversight is corrected in that it’s on my Goodreads to-read list. As to the first question, yeah, I know.

Not at all a bad reading week, and I’m looking forward to more time (I hope) to read this summer. What about you? Have any recommendations or books you’re anxious to read?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake: A NovelHow strange it is after such a long reading dry spell, I’ve been whipping through books again. I finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in the matter of a couple of days. I think I may have started reading it Saturday.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli, named for his father’s favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. His father, saved when his copy of Gogol’s short stories is noticed in the rubble following a train wreck, must give his son a name before he will be released from the hospital. Since his wife’s grandmother has been given the honor of choosing his “good name,” the family settles on Gogol, thinking later they can change it.

Each chapter is a vignette in the lives of Gogol and his family, from his parents’ arranged marriage to Gogol’s rediscovery, at the age of 32, of a copy of Gogol’s short stories that his father gave him when he was a teenager who hated his name. Gogol, born in America, straddles two cultures all of his life, never seeming to feel completely comfortable in one or the other. In one poignant passage, his father finally tells Gogol the true story of how he got his name, and Gogol is moved:

And suddenly, the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”

“Not at all,” his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”

The one thread that runs through this novel is the importance of looking forward instead of looking back. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is not a grand adventure. It’s the story of an ordinary life. In part, it is a coming of age story. It’s engaging, nevertheless, and Gogol becomes a sympathetic character that I rooted for and hated to see disappointed. He became very real, and by the end of the book, I felt I knew him. I wondered what happened to him on 9/11. I wondered if he found happiness. If he had children. If he went to visit his mother in India.

The lush descriptions of food were one of my favorite parts of the novel. Whether it is home-cooked Indian food or dinner at a restaurant, meals are central to this novel—they bring the characters together. They are the agents of assimilation (Thanksgiving turkey), and they are the vestiges of a home left behind.

My own family has lived in America for hundreds of years. I don’t have any idea what the immigrant experience is like. Sure, I have moved to new places, but the culture in each place I have lived is more or less the same, and if I have to do without restaurants that have become favorites, it’s no small price to pay when I find new favorites and quickly assimilate to the new place. I can’t imagine what it must be like to move thousands of miles away to a completely different culture, where I am unsure of the language and customs. However, I feel like I caught a glimpse of what such an undertaking must be like after reading this book, and it made me admire immigrants for what they are willing to do in order to build a life for themselves. More Americans should read this book. I was moved by a passage near the end, as Gogol reflects on the fact that his mother is selling the house he grew up in so that she can go to India:

And then the house will be occupied by strangers, and there will be no trace that they were ever there, no house to enter, no name in the telephone directory. Nothing to signify the years his family has lived here, no evidence of the effort, the achievement it had been.

On a lark, I searched through census records to see who had lived in my current house. The names changed each decade. In 1910, the Anderson family, Swedish immigrants whose children had been born here in Massachusetts, lived in my house. Arthur Anderson was a carpenter. I wonder if any of his work survives. My husband often says this house was built like a ship. In 1920, the French Canadian Cartier family lived in my house. Frederick Cartier owned a shop, but the census doesn’t say what kind. His three children, all teenagers between 14 and 18 years old, worked—the two girls in a corset factory and the boy in a cotton mill. In 1930, Albert Dupont, a carpenter who had been born in Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, lived here with his family. In 1940, the O’Briens lived in my house. John O’Brien was a salesman. The names change every ten years, and but for a whim, they would have been completely forgotten. I was fascinated to discover a few scant facts about each family. Worcester is a city with a strong immigrant population, even up to the present. It’s one of the things that makes this city interesting. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes Massachusetts interesting. It makes a great deal of sense to me that Jhumpa Lahiri brought the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Boston. Something about this state has attracted people who have set off thousands of miles away from home to build a new life, from 1620 when the Pilgrims sailed The Mayflower and landed at Plymouth to the present day.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays—August 29, 2011

Musing MondaysThis week’s Musing Mondays asks…

What was the last book you…
• borrowed from the library?
• bought?
• cried over?
• disliked and couldn’t finish?
• read & loved?
• got for review? (or: got in the mail?)
• gave to someone else?
• stayed up too late reading?

Ah, now these are excellent questions. I honestly can’t remember the last book I myself checked out of the library. I haven’t been in over a year. I helped Maggie check out some books on the Salem Witch Trials, I think, but I can’t recall getting anything for myself that time.

The last book I bought was probably [amazon_link id=”0439139600″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire[/amazon_link] because we could not find our copy. We are always reading those to death anyway. I think some of the books in that series are on their third copy.

The last book I cried over was [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] (review). I just loved that book, and parts of it were so sad.

The last book I disliked and couldn’t finish…hmmm….I want to say that was [amazon_link id=”0758254083″ target=”_blank” ]Wuthering Bites[/amazon_link], which made me sad because 1) it was a gift, and 2) I love [amazon_link id=”0143105434″ target=”_blank” ]Wuthering Heights[/amazon_link] and would like to believe I have a sense of humor about parodies of works I love, but this one just did not grab me. I don’t think I made it into chapter 2.

The last book I read and loved was [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] (review) by Sharyn McCrumb. I really, really liked [amazon_link id=”0451197399″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Frankie Silver[/amazon_link] (review), perhaps even loved it, but if we’re talking it-went-on-my-list-of-favorites love, then that was The Songcatcher.

The last book I got for review that I actually have reviewed was [amazon_link id=”1401301045″ target=”_blank” ]The Wild Rose[/amazon_link] (review). I have some other review copies in my TBR pile (or on NetGalley, which amounts to the same thing).

Does PaperBackSwap count as giving a book to someone else? I’m going to say it does, in which case I mailed copies of [amazon_link id=”0061579289″ target=”_blank” ]Adam & Eve[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”039592720X” target=”_blank” ]Interpreter of Maladies[/amazon_link] on the same day, which was August 24. Giving a book as a gift, it was probably Christmas. I gave books to the kids and a [amazon_link id=”B002FQJT3Q” target=”_blank” ]Kindle[/amazon_link] to Steve.

The last time I stayed up too late reading was probably…oh, shoot…I do this so much during the summer that it’s hard to keep track. I am going to say it was with Jennifer Donnelly’s “Rose” trilogy: [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1401307469″ target=”_blank” ]The Winter Rose[/amazon_link], and the aforementioned The Wild Rose. I ate those books up with a spoon.

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