Jhumpa Lahiri clearly believes in the power of change. Celebrated for her tales of Southeast Asian immigrants and their American offspring — beginning with her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, “The Interpreter of Maladies” (1999), and her first novel, “The Namesake” (2003) — she moved to Rome in 2011 for a few years, which changed her work and her life. She fell so deeply in love with Italian that she decided to write a book about her new language in her new language, which was translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published in the United States as “In Other Words” (2015).
Lahiri's fifth book of fiction is yet another departure. “Whereabouts” is her first novel since “The Lowland” (2013). It is also her first novel written in Italian and translated into English by Lahiri herself. It was published in Italy in 2018 as “Dove mi trovo,” which literally translates as "Where I find myself" — an apt declaration for a writer whose work has always focused on cultural relocations.
It's a departure in style and subject, too. Gone are the Indian immigrants and their restless American offspring. Gone, too, is the focus on generational and cultural friction. The unnamed narrator of this slim book is a somewhat peevish, unmarried, middle-aged writer and literature professor who has lived in the same Italian city her entire life. In a series of meditative and melancholy episodes that span nearly a year, she records her efforts to locate her place in the world.
As its title suggests, “Whereabouts” is a novel about place, both geographical and emotional — both of which are subject to constant change. Each of the 46 short chapters is carefully pinned to a location with the help of Language 101 prepositions — "On the Street," "In the Office," "In the Pool," "At the Hotel," "By the Sea," "In Bed," "At the Register." Several are sited "In My Head." Some specify time of day — "At Dawn," "Upon Waking." On the brink of a big change in the narrator's life, a chapter is titled "Nowhere."
Geographic detail is scant — down to the name of the narrator's hometown. She is occasionally addressed as "Signora" — a rare tipoff that she's in Italy, along with references to the piazzas on which she and her mother live.
“Whereabouts” offers a muted portrait of urban solitude marked by an undercurrent of longing. Lahiri's narrator, who deliberately fills her quiet life with routines and rituals, writes, "Solitude: it's become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it's a condition I try to perfect."
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She is nothing if not disciplined. She carefully fits her own writing around her teaching, which pays the bills; orders a different dish each day at the trattoria where she lunches alone; swims twice weekly at dinnertime; indulges in twice-monthly Sunday manicures; lines up single tickets in advance for the upcoming season of concerts, for which she always dons a nice dress. Less enjoyable are her dutiful but distant twice-monthly visits to her mother, a train and bus ride away. There are also occasional baptisms, weddings, small dinner parties, and visits with friends, though she often feels "separate from the group."
A recurrent theme is how heavy time can weigh when alone. She feels her isolation more sharply during what was meant to be a restorative break at a friend's vacant country house, and notes, "Solitude demands a precise assessment of time, I've always understood this. It's like the money in your wallet: you have to know how much time you need to kill, how much to spend before dinner, what's left over before going to bed."
She reflects repeatedly on her unhappy childhood — laying blame on both parents, but especially bitter that her passive father never felt it was his business to protect her from her mother's vicious rages. In "On the Couch," she recalls her dissatisfying (and clearly unsuccessful) year of therapy: "Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter."
We learn that her "spartan life" has included multiple lovers, many of them married or duplicitous. Her attraction to a friend's husband provides a frisson of suspense as she wonders "what it would be like to take things a step further" than their "chaste, fleeting bond."
Like many accustomed to their own sovereignty, this woman does not suffer fools gladly. She is easily annoyed by colleagues and strangers, including another dinner party guest at whom, to her mortification, she lashes out over a disagreement about a film.
As always, Lahiri writes with subtlety and delicacy. There is movement in her prose that reflects the subtle movement in her narrator's life. “Whereabouts” is the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience. Shifts between shadow and light, emptiness and fulfillment, irritation and enjoyment, and stasis and change carry us along as this hampered woman gradually resolves to "push past the barrier" that has long impeded her way in the world. As for Lahiri, she is a writer who obviously relishes pushing past barriers, including those she herself erects.
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