Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Review: The Lowland

I had great intentions of reviewing books as I read them, but that goal quickly slipped through the cracks. I've got quite a backlog and I'm going to work through it slowly, probably with some shorter reviews here and there. I actually found this post hidden in my drafts. I don't even remember writing it, but I stand by everything I, at some point, must have typed. I figured I'd post it now, and then collect my thoughts on the books I read on my flights to and from Seattle. Airplane reading is the best. 


The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel, centers on two brothers from India. Udayan is reckless, wild, and joins a radical revolutionary group in India. Subhash is steady, reserved, and moves to Rhode Island to study oceanography. When Udayan is killed by police, Subhash is faced with the task of picking up the pieces of his family - namely, by marrying Gauri, Udayan's pregnant widow, bringing her back to America, and raising his niece, Bela, as his daughter.  

I read this book and The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, in the same week, and it was interesting to see the different ways authors approach a novel that spans decades, especially since I spend so much time reading, critiquing, and teaching short stories, which tend to be scaled much smaller. That said, I had mixed feelings about The Lowland (I'll write more about The Interestings soon). First, it took me a while to get into The Lowland. The first fifty pages chronicle Udayan and Subhash's childhood, sketching their personalities and relating anecdotes that set up the future conflict. It felt exposition-heavy and surface driven, covering too many years in a relatively short amount of space. The more I read, however, the more I saw that this was Lahiri's style, at least for this particular book. And it makes sense - in order for the novel to cover the events of over 40 years, a lot of summary has to happen. While the prose is overall striking and lovely, getting into the characters' hearts and minds was harder. Even so, I was drawn into the book, and into the questions it asked, eagerly waiting for answers - would Bela find out Subhash wasn't her real father? And, if she did, how would she react? Would Gauri and Subhash be happy? Would their marriage work? It was also interesting to see how each characters' life played out over time, especially Bela. When we meet her she's still in utero. By the end of the book, she's in her 40s, and following her life for so long was fascinating. 

The most interesting character, to me, was Gauri. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that her combination of grief and guilt, as well as her complicated feelings toward Bela and Subhash, made me feel as if I were meeting someone entirely new. While the rest of the characters could feel stiff at some points, bordering on cliches, Gauri was unexpected and fresh. I never knew exactly what she was thinking or feeling or planning, and that sense of suspense and surprise kept me turning the page. 

Overall, I enjoyed The Lowand, though I prefer Lahiri's short stories. My favorite one, and the one I like to teach, is "A Temporary Matter". It always makes me cry, which I'm sure my students love, and you should read it right now. Read The Lowland, too, because I'd love to know what other people think. If it helps at all, I will say that the last chapter was perfect. 

2 comments:

  1. I felt really conflicted because I had anticipated The Lowland for so long--Jhumpa Lahiri catapulted herself to the top of my Favorite Authors list with Interpreter of Maladies (SO agree about "A Temporary Matter"--me too) and stayed there with The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth ("Only Goodness" is my second always-tearjerker). So I probably came at The Lowland with super-high expectations. I felt like there was too much Naxalite exposition--I get that she had to explain it all to us non-Indians, but it distracted me from the emotional development of the characters, which is something she is usually so excellent at doing.

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  2. A Temporary Matter slays me every time I read it.

    I was in the minority of my book club that actually liked Lowland! It was the story that drew me in for sure. There were critiques about her writing not being very tight but I guess I'm sortof rebelling against all the overwrought MFAish writing I've been reading and loved the simplicity of it. Gauri was definitely my favorite character too. Man, yeah, I just really liked the book, especially learning about all the Naxalite stuff--who knew!?!

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