Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
I didn’t love this book.
Some of the stories were beautiful. All of the writing was lovely, but some of the stories didn’t sing to me, where some did. I was a little disappointed that the title story was definitely not the best; it’s about a man who interprets for a living, who takes a group of American tourists (of Indian heritage) around on a tour of his hometown, which they visit every year or so from their home in New Jersey. The tourists are pretty delightfully obnoxious, and the ending of the story when one of them gets an Indian comeuppance, is delightful; but the major action involves this interpreter (who also works in a doctor’s office, translating people’s symptoms to the doctor – hence the title) developing a crush on the tourist woman. Which was pretty disappointing, really.
I did like about half of the stories. A Temporary Matter, the first one, was maybe the most touching; it’s about a couple trying to find their way after a stillbirth; they are mostly estranged and alienated, until the power company turns off all of the lights in the neighborhood around dinner time, and then these two people find that they can talk in the darkness in a way they can’t when the lights are on. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, which was also a letdown, though it did make sense. It was good, but not my favorite. The second story, When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, is pretty much the typical story for the collection: it features a mix of Indian culture and Western, which creates discomfort and conflict; the characters are interesting, the descriptions are lovely – and the story goes freaking nowhere. Ditto for A Real Durwan, Sexy, and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar (The first and last only differ in that they are purely Indian, and so have at least some appeal in showing something of the culture; Sexy is the only story in the collection with a Western main character, and she’s a dud, as is the story.), and, sadly, the title story. Which at least does have the best title, which is, I suppose, why Lahiri picked it for the collection. The other three I’ve listed here were all a little too strange, and a lot too dull: nothing really happens, nothing gets resolved, nobody goes anywhere. I’m sure that was the point, an attempt to show the futility and emptiness of modern life, but — whatever.
The good stories were The Third and Final Continent, This Blessed House, and especially Mrs. Sen’s, which was my favorite. They showed relationships that were fraught, but not doomed; the couple in The Third and Final Continent actually work out quite well, as does the most significant relationship in the story, between the Indian main character and his American landlady, who is 103 years old and is splendid. Say it! Say “Splendid!”
This Blessed House has the most interesting character, in the woman named Twinkle, who reminded me of the classic vivacious hostess, the sort of Katherine Hepburn energetic wit with grace and style who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty; she was contrasted nicely with her dud of a husband, though I do have to say that, as an introvert, I was kind of on his side: he just wants a quiet house to come home to after work, and his wife keeps throwing parties and doing things. I have never been so glad to be married to a woman even more introverted than me.
Mrs. Sen’s was the sweetest story. It’s about an American boy who spends his afternoons at the home of his babysitter, the titular Mrs. Sen; seeing her through his eyes made her interesting but never offputting – other than the damned knife in the beginning of the story, which I could not for the life of me imagine; it’s apparently an Indian cooking tool, a blade fixed to the cutting board, and you move the vegetables over the knife to chop them. It’s a nice piece of Indian culture, but I just couldn’t grasp it. Still can’t. But I love how Mrs. Sen is so eager to get news from home, and I was heartbroken with her when the news is bad; I thought it was very sweet how she tries to learn to drive, and I actually liked her husband, which made this one of the few relationships in the book that isn’t depressing or disappointing. Plus, I used to have to go to my babysitter’s after school — Mrs. Bergstrom’s — and so I bonded with the narrator right away, and I sort of wish that Mrs. B. had only had me to watch, instead of the five or six kids she took care of at once. I would have liked to get to know her the way we get to know Mrs. Sen in this story.
Overall, I don’t think it was really worth it; even the good stories aren’t among my favorites, really. If you are in the mood for a sort of gentle alienation, like looking through a soft veil at a surrealist painting, then go for it; if you feel like reading about romances that don’t have a whole lot of closeness in them, as well, then this one is right up your alley. I think it missed my alley.