Friday, March 13, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: First Impressions

To make discussing WWADY featured books simpler, I've decided to dedicate one day of the week (Friday) to our monthly featured books. I'll refer to future Friday posts as "Featured Book Fridays," and you can expect a post about WWADY featured books every week. This way, if you're reading along, you'll know when to get online and share your thoughts. I hope that this will make it easier for you follow along and share your ideas with the rest of us.

So, on with business. Here are my first thoughts about Unaccustomed Earth. I look forward to hearing yours. I'll limit my observations to the first story in the book to keep myself from spoiling any more of the book than I have to for those who haven't started yet.

The main point that's struck me so far is this:

Jhumpa Lahiri addresses the complexity of human relationships as well as anyone I've read.

I was particularly struck by two passages in "Unaccustomed Earth." The first is when Adam, Ruma's husband, is urging Ruma to see if her father would like to move in with them. Adam questions why it's hard for Ruma to approach her father by saying, "He's your father. You've known him all your life," which is followed by this truth:

"And yet, until now, she had not known certain things about him."

Lahiri understands just how difficult it is to communicate honestly and really get to know other people -- even family members. Most people, I think, are fiercely private, keeping their innermost fears and doubts and wishes and desires secret from even those they love the most. After all, how well do we really know our parents or children or friends or even our spouses, should we be lucky enough to have these people in our lives?

In Ruma and her father, Lahiri shows us two people who do, in fact, care for each other but who aren't really able to open up and communicate honestly. Ruma is unable to tell her father how she feels about her mother's death, her life in Seattle, her role as a stay-at-home mom, and most importantly, the care she has for him. Similarly, Ruma's father has his secrets. He can't tell his daughter he's fallen in love with Mrs. Bagchi even though he's had many chances to do so, and he takes great pains to hide the postcard he's written to Mrs. Bagchi. He even writes it in a foreign language just in case Ruma happens upon it (though it's contents are pretty mundane).

The second passage that struck me is on page 53. Speaking of Ruma's father, we read:

"He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it."

I'm struck here by what Lahiri is willing to say. True, families are beautiful, natural, good things. True, most people love their families and lest anyone doubt it, I love mine and trust that you love yours.

But having said that, I'd bet cold, hard cash that you've occasionally felt like Ruma's father. I'd bet virtually anything that you've had moments when you became tired of the baggage families sometimes bring. That Ruma's father decides to enjoy his family at a distance and on his own terms seems perfectly understandable. He's found an independence in being alone, and he's unwilling to give that up. This doesn't, however, make him at all unlikable. In fact, I think it makes him human.

That's all for this week. Next week, I'll include all of the stories in part one in my post (the first five), so if you want to avoid having any stories spoiled, read at least that far.

And now it's your turn. Please feel free to add a comment and chime in. I'd love to know what you're thinking.

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