Unaccustomed Earth

By Jhumpa Lahiri
Binding:Hardcover
Publisher:Knopf, (4/1/2008)
Language:English



Average Rating:
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3.40 out of 5 (5 Clubie's ratings)


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From the internationally best-selling, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, a superbly crafted new work of fiction: eight stories—longer and more emotionally complex than any she has yet written—that take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand as they enter the lives of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers.

In the stunning title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father, who carefully tends the earth of her garden, where he and his grandson form a special bond. But he’s harboring a secret from his daughter, a love affair he’s keeping all to himself. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a husband’s attempt to turn an old friend’s wedding into a romantic getaway weekend with his wife takes a dark, revealing turn as the party lasts deep into the night. In “Only Goodness,” a sister eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish, and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in “Hema and Kaushik,” a trio of linked stories—a luminous, intensely compelling elegy of life, death, love, and fate—we follow the lives of a girl and boy who, one winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome.

Unaccustomed Earth is rich with Jhumpa Lahiri’s signature gifts: exquisite prose, emotional wisdom, and subtle renderings of the most intricate workings of the heart and mind. It is a masterful, dazzling work of a writer at the peak of her powers.

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CagneyC's thoughts on "Unaccustomed Earth"
updated on:3/12/2013

Well-written stories. 

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E's Reads's thoughts on "Unaccustomed Earth"
updated on:1/20/2010

Wow... can Lahiri make you feel people. All the stories are heart ache in some way, but the way she writes is amazing! So real! 9/09

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"Unaccustomed Earth"
By Jhumpa Lahiri

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.40 out of 5 (5 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 

1. Discuss the relevance of the epigraph from Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" not just to the title story but also to the collection as a whole. In which stories do the children successfully "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth"? Why do others find themselves unable to establish roots? How do their feelings of restlessness and insecurity stem from growing up in two cultures? What other more universal problems do they experience? In what ways does their lack of attachment to a place or culture reflect a more general trend in society?

2. In "Unaccustomed Earth," what underlies the tension in the relationship between Ruma and her father as the story opens? What aspects of the family's history inhibit their ability to communicate with each other? How do their memories of Ruma's mother and the life she led influence the paths they choose for the next stages in their lives? Do you feel more sympathy for either character's point of view?

3. In what ways does "Hell-Heaven" echo the themes explored in "Unaccustomed Earth"? How does the way the story unfolds add to its power and its poignancy? What parallels are there between the narrator's mother's "crush" on Pranab and her own infatuation with him and Deborah?

4. What is the significance of the title "A Choice of Accommodations"? What does it imply about Amit and Megan's marriage? Why do you think Lahiri chose to set the story at Amit's old prep school? Do you think the events of the weekend bring Amit a better sense of who he is, what he wants and needs from Megan, and his role as a husband and father? Will the weekend change anything for Amit and Megan and their relationship?

5. "Only Goodness" traces the impact of parental expectations on a sister and brother. Why did Sudha and Rahul develop in such different ways? Discuss such factors as the circumstances surrounding their births and earliest years; the obligations Sudha takes on both as the "perfect daughter" and in response to the combination of love, envy, and resentment Rahul's attitudes and behavior arouse in her; and the siblings' awareness of and reactions to the "perplexing fact of [their] parents' marriage" [p. 137]. Compare and contrast the siblings' choice of partners. What attracts Sudha to Roger, and Rahul to Elena?

6. Why does Paul, the American graduate student in "Nobody's Business," find his roommate, Sang, the recipient of frequent marriage proposals, so intriguing? Does Paul really want to help Sang, or does he get involved in her relationship with Farouk for more selfish reasons? Why do you think Lahiri titled this story "Nobody's Business"—and what does the title mean to you?

7. In "Once in a Lifetime," Hema addresses Kaushik directly as she recalls the time they spent together as teenagers. How does this twist on the first-person narration change your experience as a reader? Does it establish a greater intimacy between you and the narrator? Does it have an effect on the flow of the narrative? On the way Hema presents her memories? Is it comparable, for example, to reading a private letter or diary? Are the same things true of Kaushik's narrative in "Year's End"?

8. In an interview with Bookforum, Lahiri, whose parents immigrated to London and then to the United States, said, "My parents befriended people simply for the fact that they were like them on the surface; they were Bengali, and that made their circle incredibly vast. There is this de facto assumption that they're going to get along, and often that cultural glue holds them, but there were also these vast differences. My own circle of friends is much more homogenous, because most of my friends went to college—Ivy League or some other fine institution—and vote a certain way." How is this mirrored by the friendship between the two sets of parents in "Once in a Lifetime," who are close friends despite the differences in their backgrounds? Why does this attachment deteriorate when the Choudhuri family returns from India? Which of their habits or attitudes do Hema's parents find particularly reprehensible and why? What is the significance of Kaushik's breaking his family's silence and telling Hema about his mother's illness?

9. How would you describe the tone and style of Kaushik's account of his father's remarriage in "Year's End"? Does his conversation with his father [pp. 253-255] reveal similarities between them? Why does Kaushik say, "I didn't know which was worse-the idea of my father remarrying for love, or of his actively seeking out a stranger for companionship" [p. 255]? Does the time he spends with his father's new family offer an alternate, more complex, explanation for his father's decision?

10. What role do his stepsisters play in Kaushik's willingness to accept his father's marriage? Why is he so outraged by their fascination with the pictures of his mother? He later reflects, "in their silence they continued both to protect and to punish me" [p. 293]. In what ways does their silence and the reasons for it mirror Kaushik's own behavior, both here and in "Once in a Lifetime"?

11. How do "Once in a Lifetime" and "Year's End" set the stage for "Going Ashore," the final story in the trilogy? What traces of their younger selves are visible in both Hema and Kaushik? In what ways do the paths they've chosen reflect or oppose the journeys their parents made as immigrants?

12. Why does Hema find the idea of an arranged marriage appealing? How has her affair with Julian affected her ideas about romantic love? What does her description of her relationship with Navin [pp. 296-298] reveal about what she thinks she wants and needs in a relationship? What role do her memories of her parents' marriage play in her vision of married life?

13. What motivates Kaushik's decision to become a photojournalist? In what ways does the peripatetic life of a photojournalist suit his idea of himself? In addition to the many moves his family made, what other experiences make him grow up to be an outsider, "away from the private detritus of life" [p. 309]?

14. What does the reunion in Rome reveal about the ties that bind Hema and Kaushik despite their many years of separation? What does it illustrate about their attempts to escape from the past and their parents' way of life? What do they come to realize about themselves and the plans they have made as the intimacy between them escalates? Why does Lahiri introduce Hema's voice as the narrator of the final pages?

15. In what ways does "Going Ashore" bring together the themes threaded through the earlier stories? What does the ending demonstrate about realities of trying to find a home in the world?

16. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth offer a moving, highly original perspective on the clash between family and cultural traditions and the search for individual identity. How does the sense of displacement felt by the older, immigrant generation affect their American-born children? What accommodations do the children make to their parents' way of life? In trying to fit in with their American friends, do they sacrifice their connections to their heritage? In what ways are the challenges they face more complex than those of their parents?

17. Several stories feature marriages between an Indian-American and an American-and in once case, English-spouse. What characteristics do these mixed marriages share? In what ways does becoming parents themselves bring up (or renew) questions about cultural identity? What emotions arise as they contemplate the differences between the families they're creating and those in which they grew up?



Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals. (Apr.) 
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From Booklist
*Starred Review* Following her thoughtful first novel, The Namesake (2003), which has been made into a meditative film, Lahiri returns to the short story, the form that earned her the Pulitzer Prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The tight arc of a story is perfect for Lahiri’s keen sense of life’s abrupt and painful changes, and her avid eye for telling details. This collection’s five powerful stories and haunting triptych of tales about the fates of two Bengali families in America map the perplexing hidden forces that pull families asunder and undermine marriages. “Unaccustomed Earth,” the title story, dramatizes the divide between immigrant parents and their American-raised children, and is the first of several scathing inquiries into the lack of deep-down understanding and trust in a marriage between a Bengali and non-Bengali. An inspired miniaturist, Lahiri creates a lexicon of loaded images. A hole burned in a dressy skirt suggests vulnerability and the need to accept imperfection. Van Eyck’s famous painting, The Arnolfini Marriage, is a template for a tale contrasting marital expectations with the reality of familial relationships. A collapsed balloon is emblematic of failure. A lost bangle is shorthand for disaster. Lahiri’s emotionally and culturally astute short stories (ideal for people with limited time for pleasure reading and a hunger for serious literature) are surprising, aesthetically marvelous, and shaped by a sure and provocative sense of inevitability. --Donna Seaman 

Review
“Splendid . . . The fact that America is still a place where the rest of the world comes to reinvent itself–accepting with excitement and anxiety the necessity of leaving behind the constrictions and comforts of distant customs–is the underlying theme of Jhumpa Lahiri’s sensitive new collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. . . . .
Lahiri’s epigraph . . . from ‘The Custom-House,’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne, [is] an apt, rich metaphor for the transformations Lahiri oversees in these pages, in which two generations of Bengali immigrants to America–the newcomers and their hyphenated children–struggle to build normal, secure lives. . . . . 
Except for their names, ‘Hema and Kaushik’ [the title characters of the final trilogy of stories] could evoke any American’s ’70s childhood, any American’s bittersweet acceptance of the compromises of adulthood. The generational conflicts Lahiri depicts cut across national lines; the waves of admiration, competition and criticism that flow between their two families could occur between Smiths and Taylors in any suburban town; and the fight for connection and control between Hema and Kaushik–as children and as adults–replays the tussle that has gone on ever since men and women lived in caves.
Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration. Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.”

–Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters tend to be immigrants from India and their American-reared children, exiles who straddle two countries, two cultures, and belong to neither: too used to freedom to accept the rituals and conventions of home, and yet too steeped in tradition to embrace American mores fully. . . . Ms. Lahiri writes about these people in Unaccustomed Earth with an intimate knowledge of their conflicted hearts, using her lapidary eye for detail to conjure their daily lives with extraordinary precision . . . A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories: a reminder of Ms. Lahiri’s appreciation of the wages of time and mortality and her understanding too of the missed connections that plague her husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends. [Lahiri] deftly explicates the emotional arithmetic of her characters’ families . . . showing how some of the children learn to sidestep, even defy, their parents’ wishes. But she also shows how haunted they remain by the burden of their families’ dreams and their awareness of their role in the generational process of Americanization. . . The last three overlapping tales tell a single story about a Bengali-American girl and a Bengali-American boy, whose crisscrossing lives make up a poignant ballad of love and loss and death. They embark on a passionate affair that concludes not with a fairy-tale happy ending but with a denouement that speaks of missed opportunities and avoidable grief. . . . an ending that possesses the elegiac and haunting power of tragedy–a testament to Lahiri’s emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer.”
 
            –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Stunning. [Lahiri] delves deeply and richly into the lives of immigrants. [But though] immigrants may be the stories’ protagonists, their doubts, insecurities, losses and heartbreaks belong to all of us. Never before has Lahiri mined so perfectly the secrets of the human heart. . . . In part, Lahiri’s gift to the reader is gorgeous prose that bestows greatness on life’s mundane events and activities. But it is her exploration of lost love and lost loved ones that gives her stories an emotional exactitude few writers could ever hope to match.”

–Carol Memmott, USA Today

“Shimmering . . . The literary prize committees should once again take note . . . To read [Unaccustomed Earth] and only take away an experience of cultural tourism would be akin to reading Dante only to retain how medieval Italians slurped their spaghetti. Lahiri’s fiction delves deep into the universal theme of isolation. . . . Lahiri is a lush writer bringing to life worlds through a pile-up of detail. But somehow all that richness electrifyingly evokes the void. . . . It’s customary when reviewing short story collections to adopt a ‘one from column A, two from column B’ kind of structure–you know, the title story always gets a ritual nod, followed by a run-down of which stories are the strongest, which have just been included for filler. But another stereotype-confounding aspect of Lahiri’s writing is that there aren’t any weak stories here: every one seems like the best, the most vivid, until you read the next one. . . . Lahiri ingeniously reworks the situation of characters subsisting at point zero, of being stripped down like Lear on the heath. [Unaccustomed Earth] certainly makes a contribution to the literature of immigration, but it also takes its rightful place with modernist tales from whatever culture in which characters find themselves doomed to try and fail to only connect.”

–Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air”

“Profound . . . Powerful . . . Haunting . . . Lahiri’s prose here is deceptively simple, its mechanics invisible, as she enters into her characters’ innermost journeys. [In the title story,] the moment-to-moment rendering of Ruma’s vulnerability and her father’s rising panic at all that he’s keeping secret sweeps the reader into a compelling emotional landscape. . . . Lahiri invests [her characters] with great depth. [She is] a writer working at the height of her powers.”

–Lisa Fugard, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Peripatetic, sweeping stories–Lahiri’s best yet–which move from Boston to Bombay and back again to evoke intricate topologies of emotion and characters who often feel more at home abroad. [They] possess the gravitational pull of short novels. . . . The final three stories, a trilogy in which an educated, thoroughly American girl’s choice of an arranged marriage over romantic love (a decision Lahiri deftly makes relatable) has cataclysmic repercussions, form the rhapsodic culmination to the collection. Lahiri, a master storyteller–who, along with Alice Munro, has arguably done more to reinvigorate the once-moribund form than any other contemporary English-language writer–comes full circle with this book, imbued as it is with a sense of passage, of life and death and rebirth.”

            –Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“Five of five stars. . . . Commanding and seamless . . . There might not be a better book of fiction by an American writer published this year. . . . Extraordinary . . . The long, absorbing ‘Unaccustomed Earth,’ the title story [deals with] familiar themes [for Lahiri]: the alienation that Indian immigrant parents feel toward their American-reared children and the guilt those children feel as they assimilate into the melting pot of the U.S. But as she proved in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Lahiri writes so compellingly about these conflicts and pays such careful attention to the most emotionally telling of details that each story feels freshly minted. . . . The range of human experiences [Lahiri] chronicles is epic, again and again. [‘Hell-Heaven’ is] a universal story of yearning and unrequited desire, rooted so specifically and powerfully in a sense of time and place that we feel as if we are living right alongside the characters . . . For all that’s comfortingly familiar about Unaccustomed Earth, though, one of its chief pleasures is that it shows Lahiri stretching in entirely new directions. In ‘A Choice of Accommodations,’ for instance, the author serves up a slice of Updike-ian Americana while managing to put her own distinct twist on the proceedings. . . . ‘Only Goodness,’ arguably the strongest story in the collection, gets under your skin like nothing Lahiri has written before. The first five stories are varied and accomplished [and the final three] are gripping and affecting . . . Whereas so many story collections feel like uneven grab-bags, Unaccustomed Earth seems to have poured forth from the author’s pen in one swoop, and it eloquently circles back over the same sets of themes and motifs without growing tired. It’s like a symphony in eight movements.”

–Christopher Kelly, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Four stars. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to probe culture and generational clashes among Bengali brethren living in the U.S. (and occasionally abroad) in her penetrating second collection . . . No character exists in isolation in Lahiri’s new work, which is deeply aware of the power of blood ties; her book is a congregation of siblings, parents, spouses. Neither an exultation of nuclear families nor a cynical catalog of their dysfunction, Unaccustomed Earth is something braver and more difficult: a compassionate inspection of the fissures and disappointments of deep attachment. . . . trenchant. Whether they are middle-aged mothers who tire of years of keeping house in small Northeastern towns, thousands of miles away from Calcutta, or sisters who finally relinquish responsibility for alcoholic younger brothers, these characters are somehow redeemed by their courage to face the day, ‘as typica... 
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Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the author of two previous books. Her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her novel The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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