Bowdoin Reads

Professor Barker is reading...

Unaccustomed Earth
by Jhumpa Lahiri

Several years ago I joined a men's book group, an activity I'd never tried before. I should have done so much sooner! It's been a rewarding experience for many reasons, one being my introduction to books I was unlikely to encounter on my own. Our current book falls into this category: Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.

The overarching theme is the set of issues and challenges that arise between expatriate Bengali parents in the United States and their American born children, especially the love, exasperation, confusion, and changing expectations between these two generations. The name of the collection, Unaccustomed Earth, has a Bowdoin connection, coming from The Custom-House a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Lahiri's view of the benefits of transplantation are far more complex than Hawthorne's, especially as it affects family ties. Her characters struggle, as we all do, with responsibilities, relationships, and desires. However, immigrants and their children face added complications.

Lahiri is a gifted writer, especially with short stories. She is able to develop complex characters — and make us care about them — with only a few well-crafted sentences. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of sweet stories that transcend their specific roots in Bengali-American families — they speak to all of us.

(Note, this book is also available as an audiobook.)

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