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SEPTEMBER 13, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 10

The Promising Land
Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri's heralded debut only partly lives up to its advance hype

The slimness of Jhumpa Lahiri's debut collection of stories hides a remarkably polished package. Three of the nine tales in Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books; 198 pages) have already been published in the New Yorker; the title story has been selected for both the O. Henry Award and The Best American Short Stories; and Lahiri herself has been named, again by the New Yorker, as one of the 20 best young writers in America. The cover of her book drips with plaudits from fellow Asian-American women writers.

Few young authors could withstand such a buildup. Yet Lahiri's style--at once full-throated and demure--emerges steadily amid the hoopla. The language seems at times effortless: "For the greater number of her twenty-nine years, Bibi Haldar suffered from an ailment that baffled family, friends, priests, palmists, spinsters, gem therapists, prophets, and fools," she opens one of three stories set in India. Unfortunately, "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" and "A Real Durwan" survive on little more than that smoothness. The outcast women at the heart of both tales are admirably, but not passionately, drawn. Instead, the reader is lulled by Lahiri's rhythmic sentences and, for her Western audience, no doubt by the Indian setting.

Lahiri hits her stride closer to home--on the uncertain ground of the immigrant. The sense of loss and longing that permeates her Indians abroad--a Bangladeshi professor, a Bengali housewife, a young librarian--is drawn with a rare eye for the details of displacement. The professor's coat, notes the little girl who narrates "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," carries "in its weave the faint smell of limes." The housewife pours her nostalgia into her cooking, crafting huge time-consuming feasts just for her and her husband, bemoaning the lack of fresh fish and the surplus of quietude in America ("Everyone, this people, too much in their world"). The librarian, braving "The Third and Final Continent," puts together the roots of a life--cornflakes, a room to rent and, once his wife arrives, a potato peeler in the kitchen drawer. These are plain tales, familiar in sentiment to any frequent reader of Asian-American fiction. Lahiri, though, achieves a subtlety too often lacking in such stories, an acknowledgment that these characters live neither here nor there--neither fully comfortable in their skins nor steeped in fear and nostalgia. Here, when her stories end quietly, one feels less deflated than unsettled.

One might quibble that there is an excessive familiarity to these tales--not that we've heard them before, but that perhaps the author has. At times the three stories that deal with the souring of love--two involving Indian-American couples and another between a Caucasian woman and a married Indian man--read like journal entries, or schematics to the collapse of a relationship. Their declines are almost too measured, too academic to evoke much sympathy or uncontrived sadness.

Yet when, in the title story, Lahiri knits her strengths together, the promise inherent in this collection becomes clear. The tale brings an American-born Indian family to India. Through their driver, Lahiri notes the awkwardness of their engagement with their homeland, as well as the obvious tension between a couple wed too soon. Through the course of a daylong sightseeing trip she strums upon that tension masterfully, until a simple revelation lays bare the delusions of both the visitors and the driver, the "interpreter" who translates ailments for the local doctor. The whole is assured and powerful, and it is perhaps not too harsh a criticism to say that readers should look forward to Lahiri's second book.

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