Monthly Archives: February 2011

Unaccustomed Earth

In these heady times, with people undermining dictators and the like, sometimes I wonder if there is a place in the world for fiction.  But, there’s always a place for good fiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri, you no doubt already know, can write, and she also apparently can blow my socks off.  Unaccustomed Earth is ostensibly a collection of stories, which usually turns me right off, but in this case the collection works together as a coherent whole.  Lahiri doesn’t do anything kitschy or annoying like repeating themes or characters.  Instead, the first story echoes in the second, as though the characters could be there, but of course they aren’t, because they are in their own story.  The unsettled, too-settled Ruma of the title story influences the way we read both the mother and the daughter in “Hell-Heaven,” the second story.  Just a hint, nothing obvious, but coming to “Hell-Heaven” after reading “Unaccustomed Earth” layers significance on the characters that wouldn’t be there on their own.  It continues throughout, each woman – her relationships and her self-worth – speaks to the women in the other stories.

Lahiri is phenomenal at delicately speaking the truth of her characters’ inner lives without thumping us over the head with it.  Zadie Smith could learn a thing or two; I’m just sayin’.  The final section of the book, “Hema and Kaushik” employs here points of view without seeming overly stylized, and the ending is completely unexpected but perfectly crafted.  I was reading it while my boys were in tae kwon do, and their lesson ended when I was on the last page.  I had to get up, close the book, and drive them all the way home, just so Lahiri could then finish breaking my heart.



Let’s Take the Long Way Home

My best friend, Tara, came with me when I showed up, unannounced, at my father and stepmother’s doorstep a few weeks ago.  When we left, and after I had stopped shaking, Tara took me to have dinner.  On our way from the car, we walked past a bookstore.

“I’m going to buy a book!” I said.


“But what kind of a book do you buy to celebrate confronting the abusive parents you haven’t seen in twenty-seven years?”

“Maybe they have a section for that.”

They didn’t, and I trailed around behind an employee for awhile as she suggested one book after another.   None seemed quite right to mark the occasion.  Then she held up Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home.  “It’s a memoir about a woman whose best friend dies of cancer.”

“That’s the book!” I replied.  My mother died of cancer when I was two, which was how I got the sadistic stepmother in the first place.  And my best friend had just come with me to the big showdown.  If they ever do create a section called Books to Celebrate Confronting Your Abusive Parents With the Support of Your Best Friend, this book should be in it.

When I opened the book, I discovered that, while it was about a friendship, it was also about a dog.  What the hell is it with all the books about pets these days?  Are people really that interested in reading about other people’s relationships with their animals?  You loved your dog.  Got it.  Why is that worthy of a book?

I almost tossed the book, in part because of the dog and in part because there’s no strong narrative structure.  Caldwell asks us to take on faith what a wonderful friendship this was, but she doesn’t provide the necessary strong scenes building the friendship for the reader to really feel invested in the friendship, as well.  Caroline, the friend who will eventually get cancer, doesn’t feel particularly present in the first half of the book.

The character may not be embodied, but the friendship is.  For example, Caldwell explains, “Each gave the other permission to lower the bar—I would call her from the boathouse when the wind was fierce, and she could convince me not to row” (79).  If you’ve a best friend, you know that’s how it works; sometimes, Tara does call me just so I’ll convince her not to do something, or vice versa.  The sentence and example is perfect, but it felt odd to be told this so generally.  Caldwell doesn’t say, “One blustery day in March, when I knew I ought to be out on the river, I called Caroline, and said…”  There’s no dialogue or specificity, just sometimes I’d call her so she could convince me.  It feels awkward, which is why I felt like I never really got to know Caroline through the book even though I understood exactly what the friendship was.

Caldwell admits that she’s having a hard time being precise: “I find now that writing about a friendship that flourished within the realm of connection and routine has all the components of trying to capture air” (89).  Writing about something that was so integral to one’s life can be almost impossible, and Caldwell gets points for even trying to write a bestfriendship.  Yet, I couldn’t help wishing at times that she’d been more specific.

Case in point: Caroline and Caldwell’s trips to the Harvard football fields their first winter.  “We would sneak into the Harvard athletic fields, near where I lived at the time, so that the dogs could have an open space to run,” Caldwell begins, going on to tell what they would do every time they sat on those fields together.  It’s a lovely image, but it would resonate a lot more if instead of generalizing, Caldwell told about the first time, Caroline lit a specific cigarette, and one of them actually made a joke about people with common sense.  If Caldwell had been in my writing group, I would have browbeaten her about more precision.

Although I would like a few more specific scenes that build together, the book works.  There’s something so poignant about the prose and Caldwell’s emotional honesty throughout.  It’s artfully constructed, but without artifice, and that makes the book ring true.  When Caroline does get cancer, Caldwell does a lovely job of arranging just the right sentences to let the reader know exactly how she felt.  Most books nowadays are heavier on example, character and dialogue than they are on exposition, but somehow, all the navel-gazing works nicely.

I have this best friend, you see, and I never imagined what it would be like to lose her, even though I imagine losing my kids or my husband with terror.  But losing Tara?  The thought never crossed my mind until I read this, because she is just part of my life and always will be.  Caldwell had that kind of a friendship with Caroline: “We knew from the beginning, I think, that this friendship was different, that we would work to make it immune to the erosions of time” (175).  Yes.  Yes, that I understand.  I know that friendship, and it is heartbreaking to know Caldwell lost that friend.

Normally, I wouldn’t like a book constructed like this one, but I did in spite of myself.  In the end, I even cared about the dog, although that was mostly caring about Caldwell and so caring about the dog on her behalf.  The second-to-last paragraph of the book is brilliant because it pays off everything she has told the reader throughout the book.