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Bengalis replanted in American soil

Jhumpa Lahiri offers a new collection of short stories

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Plenty of teenagers think their parents are from another country (if not another planet), but in the case of the characters in Unaccustomed Earth, it’s inevitably true.

Returning to themes she explored in her first novel, “The Namesake,” Pulitzer-Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri details with quiet precision the divide between American-born children and their Bengali parents in her new short-story collection. The characters will be immediately familiar to readers of “The Namesake” and Lahiri’s first collection of short stories, “Interpreter of Maladies”: Immigrant parents – the father typically in possession of a PhD, the mother inevitably marooned at home in a strange, freezing-cold country – raise bright, conflicted children (usually one boy and one girl) amid a generally tepid marriage.

“As a child, I always dreaded my birthdays, when a dozen girls would appear in the house, glimpsing the way we lived,” says Hema, the main character of “Once in a Lifetime.” She could be speaking for any of the young female counterparts that share the pages with her.

The children, caught between worlds, eye askance the expected journey to a prestigious college and then medicine or law, followed by marriage to the child of a Bengali friend. In one tale, there’s a running joke where a Harvard dropout gets numerous telephone calls from strange men asking her to marry them, based on the combination of her Ivy League credentials and Bengali heritage.


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