Review of “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

This sweeping family saga begins with two brothers growing up in Calcutta in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Of the two brothers, Subhash was older than Udayan by fifteen months, and they were quite different from one another – mirror images, it was said. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, each felt completed by the other. They were inseparable until college, when they studied at different universities, and Udayan became caught up in the radical Naxalbari movement. (You can read more about this particular branch of class war in India that erupted in 1967 in this New York Times article.)

Udayan dies shortly after the book begins, but he remains the focus of all the other characters. One might even say this book is about the people in Udayan’s life who never got over his loss, and how it affected all of them.

Subhash had gone to Rhode Island for his Ph.D., but when he found out about Udayan’s death he came home for the funeral. Udayan left a young widow, Gauri, who, unbeknownst to Udayan, was carrying his child. Subhash decides the best thing for all of them would be for him to take Gauri back with him to Rhode Island, marry her, and raise the child as his own. Maybe she would even come to love him in time. After all, most marriages were arranged anyway.

Gauri has a girl, Bela, but it is Subhash who is the parent most devoted to her. Over the next forty years, we follow the lives of the three of them; their families back in Calcutta; and a few of the people they get to know in America. By the end of the novel, the back stories get resolved, and the characters seem ready at last to carve out a future apart from Udayan’s legacy.

Discussion: The author is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and this book has won accolades as well, but I wasn’t enamored of it. The tone is flat and depressing, although without doubt Lahiri is quite adept at conjuring places and distilling moods, in prose that resonates to the ear:

In the afternoons, following mornings of bright sun, came the rumble of thunder, like great sheets of rippling tin. … From the terrace [she] watched the thin trunks of palm trees bending but not breaking in the maritime wind. The pointed foliage flapped like the feathers of giant birds, like battered windmills that churned the sky.”

I never felt connected to any of the characters. Even Subhash, the most sympathetic of them, is a mystery; we get no sense of his interior life. He grew up as “the quiet one” and remains so; who is he and what does he care about when he is not engaging with his daughter Bela? We never really know. He is even detached from Bela: in spite of all the time they spend together, he doesn’t know who she is at all or what she wants, and he is unwilling to “impose” on her in order to find out. His superficial relationship with Bela is somewhat understandable from the plot, but it doesn’t help us develop empathy for either of them.

Gauri too, remains a mystery, which does her no favors with the reader since she is such an unlikable character.

Evaluation: This book provides a detailed picture of the recent political and social changes in India, particularly in Calcutta. I wasn’t as satisfied with the portraits of the characters, however, but can’t deny the author’s ability to fashion elegant prose.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 2013

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12 Responses

  1. I’ve seen mixed reviews of this book on almost all book blogs. Seems strange it made it to the Booker shortlist.

  2. Gah, I’m feeling a lot less inclined to read this book now. It’s been hit or miss with Jhumpa Lahiri for me. I think she writes good stories, but many of her characters suffer from a lack of connection with the reader. I wonder if it’s because they are usually too submerged in their troubles that they feel very passive.

  3. I enjoyed The Namesake, but loved Lahiri’s collections of short stores and feel that form is really her true strength. I still want to read this book though. All the reviews I’ve read have been less than glowing, so my expectations have been tempered (a good thing).

  4. More and more character development seems to be more important to me than the rest (though good writing can make up for it in some instances). I’m reading one right now that is so incredibly flat that if my sister hadn’t recommended it for book club I would ditch it in a second. Too bad about this one–especially after such praise!

  5. First Aarti and now you have declined to give rousing endorsements to this book. I am thinking it’s just not the book for me. I didn’t have much luck with my past attempts at reading Jhumpa Lahiri, anyway. :/

  6. Oh that is not good! I loved the two collections of her short stories…just ADORED them. She is such a beautiful writer. So this makes me sad. I guess I’m glad at this point that I didn’t buy the book yet.

  7. I love, LOVE Lahiri’s writing and The Namesake is one of my favorite books ever, but I wasn’t head-over-heels for this one either. It was just really, really sad to me how caught up the characters were in the past and how they couldn’t quite disengage enough from it to have normal lives.

  8. I completely agree! I can’t believe we had to spend like, 80 years with such unlikeable and flat characters!

  9. Without deep characterization a book isn’t worth much to me.

  10. Hmmm…I love reading books about India and/or Indian characters but it sounds like I should put this one at the bottom of my list

  11. Disappointing not to be able to connect with the characters. You don’t have to like them to enjoy a book but it makes the experience much better if you can connect and care about what happens to them. On the other hand, I do love books set in India so I may give it a go, just with lowered expectations.

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