[(review date 2001) In the following review, Shah provides a mixed assessment of the stories collected in Interpreter of Maladies.]
Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of nine short stories, bagged the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction--a startling achievement for a young writer's first book--and also garnered the PEN/Hemingway and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Awards and the New Yorker Debut of 1999. To date, Lahiri has had four stories--three of which are included in Interpreter of Maladies--published in The New Yorker, a magazine known for setting America's standards of high literary taste. Lauded for her precise, elegant, sparse writing style, as well as for offering stories that probe problems tied to intimate relationships and/or assimilation, Lahiri has quickly entered the inner circle of American literary culture.
Lahiri's best stories merit glowing praise: "A Temporary Matter" and "This Blessed House" draw readers into worlds of riveting characters and profound emotional dramas. "A Temporary Matter," the first story of the collection, moves through a rocky marriage haunted by the birth of a stillborn baby. The marriage seems to be re-energized as protagonists Shoba and Shukumar tell secrets to each other in the dark during several nights of power outages. Yet the disclosure of their hidden selves reunites the couple only ephemerally: after flicking on the lights, Shoba tells Shukumar that she has signed a lease for her own apartment. The story ends as the couple "wept together, for the things they now knew" (22). "A Temporary Matter" is a delicate look at the dissolution of relationships and the danger of new knowledge. Lahiri's writing here is careful, clear, understated, resulting in a powerful combination of storytelling and insight.
Perhaps Lahiri's most charming story in this collection is "This Blessed House," the tale of Twinkle's hunt for the Christian kitsch left behind by the former residents of her new home. Husband Sanjeev is not amused by Twinkle's escapades: he loathes the plastic Virgin Mary "with a blue painted hood draped over her head in the manner of an Indian bride" that Twinkle insists on displaying in the yard (146). He reminds Twinkle that the couple is...