Okay so I know I am late to the game as this book has been out since 2000 and has received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the PEN/Hemingway Award, The New Yorker Debut of the Year award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
So why hadn’t I read it?
In part because I just hadn’t heard of Interpreter of Maladies, I was in middle school when it came out, and in part because this is just not the sort of thing I would normally pick up. Then 45 decided that he should put a travel ban out there and try to build a wall, which started IBC’s #NoBanNoWall series. I looked into what books were either written by immigrants or about immigrants or other cultures to help expand my knowledge and understanding. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was on several lists and I picked it up.
Now based on what I read for the description I will say it wasn’t what I expected.
Why? Well, because the title and the description I read are one of the stories in the book verses the book being an overarching story. I legitimately thought it was going to be about a tour driver who listened to people’s stories as a way to get to know people and hear the root of their problems. Maybe I was sleep deprived (okay this isn’t a maybe) because I went back and looked at the description on the book after I read it and it reads more like there are a series of short stories which is the truth of how it was written.
I will say the first story is a trigger for anyone who has dealt with the loss of a child, specifically when pregnant. If you aren’t ready to read about it please skip this one, but if you are it is an interesting representation of how an event like that can affect a family. Each of Lahiri’s stories are carefully crafted and overall unique experiences. While there are cultural similarities throughout, the characters are in different parts of life or circumstances, and none ever interact as each story is independent from the next.
The structure of this book has been great for me as I squeeze in my reading around Jumping Bean’s schedule and if I can stay awake long enough to read.
Much of my energy is currently expended making sure he doesn’t get into trouble as he is quite inquisitive and quite the climber. To be able to read a chapter and have it be a complete story was perfect and made it easier to keep track of what was going on if Jumping Bean woke up from his nap before I finished a chapter.
My favorite story was the final chapter entitled “The Third and Final Continent,” following a young man as heads out into the world: coming from India, having gone to school in London, and on his way to America where the reader meets up with him. It is his perspective of transitioning cultures, preparing for his bride to come to America, and navigating their relationship as it was an arranged marriage. Two of my favorite quotes from the book are here:
“Like me, Mala had traveled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her.” and just a few short paragraphs later, “I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft’s parlor as the moment when the distance between Mala and me began to lessen.”
Part of that is the romantic in me thinking of the first time I met my husband, not realizing the friendship and eventual relationship that would end up unfolding, and knowing how much our lives are intertwined now compared to then. I don’t know if I could name a moment that I knew he and I would fall in love or be married. The other part is the work that the male Bengali character knew he was going to put into his relationship and his willingness to do that while his wife was still a stranger to him.