This fall, I was/am really excited about two books: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (released on September 24)
and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (to be released on October 22).
Lahiri and Tartt are delightful. If you haven’t read the following, stop reading this post, go order them/download them/borrow them, and begin reading them immediately:
Both of these books and their authors are great, great, great.
I have already pre-ordered The Goldfinch, so I will discuss that (and, more than likely, my love of Donna Tartt and The Secret History) in a couple of weeks.
For now, I will focus on Jhumpa Lahiri and The Lowland.
It’s been several years since Lahiri’s last book (Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories released in 2008), and even longer since her last novel (the lovely The Namesake, published in 2003).
The early hype on The Lowland was good—really good. It was longlisted, and then shortlisted, for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Then, just days before its release, it was longlisted for the National Book Award.
I was itching to read it.
Lahiri’s stories (both long and short) are vivid, character-driven affairs. And this one is no different.
The book’s title is derived from a stretch of land between two ponds in Calcutta near the home of brothers Subhash and Udayan. During the rainy season, the two ponds converge into one, and the lowland disappears. During the summer, as the water dries, the lowland is recreated between the ponds.
Subhash and Udayan are only fifteen months apart in age, but they are worlds apart in personality. Subhash is quiet, reserved, conservative, responsible, obedient. Udayan is adventuresome, rebellious, spontaneous, passionate, reckless.
As kids, they are inseparable. But, after finishing school, their paths diverge. Subhash decides that he will travel to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. He intends to return to India and his parents’ home after his studies, so they can arrange his marriage.
Udayan, on the other hand, has become a Naxalite and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Although he is extremely political, he keeps the extent of his activism hidden from his parents and Subhash. He meets Gauri, the sister of a fellow Naxalite. Against his parents wishes, he marries her. As custom demands, Gauri moves in with Udayan and his parents.
After being in the States for several years, Subhash receives a telegram from home, asking him to return to India. A tragedy has occurred. The tragedy changes the course of all of their lives, binding them together in unanticipated ways. The book follows their lives thereafter and the complicated relationships that ensue.
Rating: 3.5/5 🌾
This is a book that spans decades and observes how major events (like death, marriages, births) affect people and their relationships to others for the rest of their lives. In an effort to avoid spoilers, my summary is extremely and purposely vague and basic. It covers only some of the first two parts of an eight-part novel.
The book is well written. The plot is interesting. The narrative structure helps drive the story forward. The characters and their inter-relationships are complex (this is Lahiri’s strength–she creates characters who are, although not always likable, varied, vivid, and emotionally charged).
But it was slow-going for me. The book often got bogged down in the setting. There was too much description (outside of the characters’ direct involvement) of time and place. There were tangents that were intended to help create depth in characters but merely distracted from the book. And the symbolism of the lowland to the brothers’ relationship was made painfully obvious and could have been more poignant had it been a little less in-your-face.
My rating of and appreciation for this book likely suffered from my high expectations for it. I have to admit: I was a little disappointed.
Who should read it: people who like Lahiri (But, if you do, try not to get your hopes up—it’s definitely not as good as Interpreter of Maladies. Short stories are her wheelhouse).
For more info on the book: If you’re looking for a more spoiler-y synopsis of the book (and a good explanation of why Lahiri wrote it), this is a great article to read.