Overall rating: 4/5
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Read if you loved: Genuinely haven’t read anything similar
Content warnings: None
Guess who’s done with finals?!
Phew, this semester felt waaaaay too long and I’m so tired from the mundane school cycle. I do have an internship starting in ~1 week which is very exciting, and I’m looking forward to spending the time in between reading lots of books. To all other students out there – you got this! Summer is so close I can feel it scorching my skin. Anyways, on to the review. This one’s going to be pretty short and snippy because, well, so is the book.
A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies–her first in nearly a decade.
Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change. This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.
Did that synopsis help you understand what the book is about? Because it sure as hell did not help me. Truth is, it’s actually fairly accurate, because this book isn’t really about anything…but it’s also about a lot. We follow an unnamed protagonist move through life, visiting her regular haunts, people-watching, and reflecting upon her surroundings and human interactions with keen insight.
The lack of a name and inviting language lends an intimate feeling to the novel; I felt drawn into the protagonist’s mind and a real kinship with some of her experiences and thoughts as they pertain to human connection and how perspectives on life evolve through the passage of time. There is no doubt that Jhumpa Lahiri can write well – it’s actually such a testament to her skill that she kept me so engaged in a story in which a person just…lives.
(A little tangent here – she actually wrote this book in Italian back in 2018 and then translated it to English herself. Can you say talent???)
But back to the book. I think one of the reasons it hit so hard is because it perfectly encapsulated that feeling of languishing during this pandemic. While different because, well, we couldn’t quite leave the house, it does an incredible job of portraying loneliness that many of us have become familiar with and perhaps even accepted. The entire book feels like you’re on the outside looking in, and honing in on those fleeting thoughts that we often don’t have the words to articulate. If I were in a different mental place, I don’t know how I’d feel about this book. It honestly could have been anywhere from 2-5 stars. But in the few hours in which I finished it, it hit the spot. There are some smart writing choices that compensate for how uneventful the book is in terms of a plot, primarily the length and the short chapters, that help the story feel like it’s still moving forward.
This definitely isn’t a book for everyone. If you need some semblance of a plot, you’ll hate this book, but if you’re trying to explore character-driven books, this might be a good one to try given how short it is. I’m glad I read it because I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it, but I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it had it been any longer. But that’s it! I told you all this would be short and I still managed to blabber on for a while…but I hope this helps if you’re as confused as I was about the book’s premise. Let me know if Whereabouts is on your TBR!