Before I delve into an appraisal of the novel, I need to mention something that struck me before I even read the first page. The cover (of the first edition hardcover) is not worthy of the book. It is bland, as if the publisher figured that the book would sell anyway, so why bother to invest in a decent cover? I suppose such a publishing decision, from a pecuniary point of view, would make sense. Jhumpa Lahiri is a popular, award-winning author and the book was a success in advanced purchases before it was even available for sale. Still, one dresses suitably for the right occasions.
This is nit-picking, of course. What we come for is the words, and in this Lahiri does not disappoint. In the previous post I mentioned that I felt her first novel was somehow flawed, and that I enjoyed the movie better. This novel, though, is a work of art. It is beautifully rendered.
Briefly, the story concerns two brothers, close in every way, who diverge in life outlooks and paths as they grow older. One brother gets caught up in social politics in India in the late 60s, which leads to violent rebellion and eventually to his death. The other brother goes to the United States, to Rhode Island, for his education, and builds a career and life for himself there. He is more quiet, contemplative, thoughtful, and responsible. When his brother is killed by the police, he marries his brother’s pregnant wife and takes her with him back to the States. How he and the woman and the child and his parents cope with the tragedy and move on with their lives is the main subject of the book. The telling of it moves through several decades. It is a poignant, moving tale. Lahiri, as in all her works, manages to get deep inside her characters. You cannot help but feel for them. In vignette after vignette she moves the story along inevitably. She has a talent for getting the reader all caught up in what is happening so that it is hard to put the book down, even though the action concerns quiet, everyday things that only take on great significance when they are put all together as a whole.
Again and again I felt myself drawn into the narrative or a particular character so that I was thinking, My God that’s just like me. But it is not so much because I am familiar with Bengali culture, though I lived for seven years in East and West Bengal. It is because this story goes beyond the boundaries of a particular culture into universality. I would say that, though it is partly set in India, it is the least Indian of Lahiri’s stories so far, because it addresses such universal themes. It could have taken place entirely in the United States, and the politically active brother could have been active in the 60s protest movements that turned violent here, and it still would have resonated as deeply as it does. The Indian element, though, adds a pleasingly intricate pattern to the tapestry; and, of course, Lahiri’s background comes out naturally as she as a writer pours out her words onto the pages. I take back what I said in my previous comments about Lahiri’s other work, that perhaps she does better in shorter forms. This novel proves that she is fully capable of sustaining excellence in a long story as well.
So, yes, I recommend this novel. It’s a beautiful piece of art. I recommend all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, in fact, if you have never had the immense pleasure of discovering it. She is one of the great writers of our era.