I have not read any of Jhumpa Lahiri's works before, but I had heard goods things about them from various readers, and I noticed several copies of The Lowland on hold at my workplace, an academic library. I also saw that it had been mentioned in the New York Times Book Review. This led me to believe I would be reading an important contemporary novel of significant value that would in some way or another enrich my literary life. I'm not going to sugar-coat it; this book was a terrible disappointment for me.
Subhash and Udayan are very close brothers who grew up together in Calcutta in the 1960s, when that part of India was rocked with a rebellion movement. Udayan, the younger brother by less than a year, is secretly involved in this violent revolutionary attempt, looking to Mao and Che Guevara for inspiration. Subhash is an academic who goes to the United States to pursue doctoral studies in environmental chemistry. Shortly after Udayan marries the lonely and philosophical Gauri without his parents' permission, the rebellion swallows him. His parents, brother, and wife, four family members who are so isolated from one another geographically or emotionally that they are almost strangers, must learn to exist without their beloved son, almost-twin, and soulmate. Strong themes of isolation and regret fill the pages with little to no forgiveness and love to balance.
The main problem with The Lowland is that nothing happens and it takes a long time to do it. Lahiri sets up a wonderful story that has so much potential, but just when you think the plot begins to climb to an exciting level of complexity, it falls flat and remains at that plateau for the characters' entire stories. I love Irish literature, so I'm always up for a good, devastatingly sad story, but The Lowland is not that. It has one heartbreaking event that the characters languish in, refusing to heal and evolve in their mourning. Other scenes had the latency to be deliciously sad, but their muted sentimentality left them completely anticlimactic. The characters all make very interesting life choices, but the author fails to satisfactorily explore their motives and emotions. The back of the cover promised "shimmering" writing with "uncommon elegance." I was totally unimpressed with Lahiri's writing. Of course it was written well enough, but not a single phrase struck me with its beauty, no analogy swept me away with any sort of originality.
In her discussion of the book, Emma of A Beautiful Mess suggests that Gauri is an example of "feminism gone wrong." I assume she means Gauri used the freedom feminism advocates for evil or that she took advantage of her freedom to do "wrong" things. While I really dislike the phrase "feminism gone wrong" to describe this character's actions, in some regards I agree with Emma. Gauri could represent the past and present fear of women with passions for their careers and the belief that these women are selfish and slightly monstrous. Almost everything Gauri does after Udayan dies is self-serving and loveless. Traditional female roles do not suit her; her one lasting passion is studying philosophy. Gauri could be a cautionary tale of career women who reject family by allowing a purpose outside the family unit to overtake their traditional responsibilities, thus destroying the lives of all the family involved. While I agree that Gauri could be a representation of this fear of feminism, her story is not the reality of most passionate career women in real life, and it is no fault of feminism that Gauri had the opportunities to be so selfish.
Have you read The Lowland? What did you think?