Book Review – Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Short stories are far more difficult to write and to read because they’re, well, short. There is a distance, a formality to short stories because of their brevity. They’re like the people we wait in line with at the store or who work in the same building as us but for a different company on another floor. You may run into them from time to time on the elevator, but you’re not going to risk running late to wait for them to show before pushing the button.

Because of the limited time we have with them, short stories tend to be very intense. They have a point to make and they can’t waste time politely skirting around an issue. Usually, I spread my short stories out between novels. I finish a novel, read a short story, and move on to another novel. If I read too many short stories in a row, it can be too much to process. It took me a while to get through the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, but I found myself more drawn into these stories more than some of the novels I have read and reviewed recently.

Though many of the stories in the collection deal with issues of cultural identity and the impact colonization has had on Indian culture, it isn’t as much the primary focus as one might expect. Most of Lahiri’s stories examine relationships between men and women that, while presented against a culturally defined backdrop, transcend it into a universality that is engaging and leaves the message lingering with the reader.

The only story I was familiar with ahead of time was the titular “Interpreter of Maladies” about a young Indian-American couple and their three children returning India to visit their parents. Told from the perspective of their tour guide, it shows how a distancing can gradually develop between people and a place but also between one person and another. The guide, unsatisfied in his own family life, quickly develops fantasies about the young mother based on his perception of an intimacy she seeks out with him. However, she shows that it is only the kind of intimacy that can be shared briefly by strangers.

Treading the line between stranger and friend creeps up again and again through Lahiri’s stories. At what point does an interaction with a stranger turn into something more? Can two people who at one point thought they knew everything that mattered about one another turn back into strangers? Where are those moments of crossing over from one to the other in our everyday interactions?

My favorite stories were the first and last of the collection. “A Temporary Matter” follows a couple with a shared tragedy as scheduled maintenance requiring power black outs forces them to stop avoiding one another. The darkness allows them to admit things that the electric lights had them hoarding for themselves. “The Third and Final Continent” is more sentimental as it tells the story of a man who, after studying in England for several years, finds a job in America, participating in an arranged marriage before leaving his stranger bride behind to make a home for them in a foreign country. It’s the most predictable of the collection, but it also has my favorite character in his elderly landlady fascinated by man’s journeys into space.

Commonly set in the Boston collegiate area (an area I easily identify with as a lifelong Massachusetts resident), these stories and Lahiri’s style in general are very comfortable, relaxed. That distance that I usually feel with short stories was unexpectedly absent. Instead of trying to build a large story around a small idea, she found larger ideas that expressed themselves in little things, small incidents that are common enough to be recognizable and relatable.

 

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