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“Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with.  He always looks happy to see me.  He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children.  Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction…a chaste, fleeting bond.”  – the female narrator.

coverJhumpa Lahiri,  the child of immigrant parents from West Bengal, came to the United States in 1970, when she was three years old, and she spent all her childhood in American schools and universities, eventually receiving several degrees, including a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Boston University.  In 2001, she and her husband moved to Rome, and their two children were born there in 2002 and 2005.  Her literary work, written in Italian in recent years, and translated here into English by Lahiri herself, allows her to have total control over the creative process from her novel’s inception to its publication.  Whereabouts, presumably set in Italy, because of the narrator’s occasional identification as “signora” and her own references to “piazzas and “trattorias,” does not identify any particular country. The author is far more interested in the emotional reactions of the main character, a forty-six-year-old professor of writing, as she responds to the events affecting her.  She is an independent woman, never married, though she has had serious relationships, and she cares about all aspects of her life, to the point that she has even participated in therapy for a short time to try to understand the mysteries of her psyche and her imagined place in the world.  She gives up on therapy, however: “Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter….Unfortunately my childhood harbors few happy memories.”


Author Jhumpa Lahiri

Choosing to tell her story by recreating brief episodes that take place in ordinary locations familiar to us all, the narrator frees herself from the necessity of co-ordinating the events of a plot in order by date.  Instead, the chronology jumps around, and the narrator is spared the need to identify various characters in great detail, since all other characters here are important only as they affect the narrator. As she explains in “In the Office,” “It’s hard to focus here.  I feel exposed, surrounded by colleagues and students who walk down the hallways.  Their movements and their chatter get on my nerves.”  Even “In Spring,” she confesses, “The season doesn’t invigorate me.  I find it depleting.  The new light disorients, the fulminating nature overwhelms.”  When she goes to a three-day convention for work, she does enjoy riding in the elevator with an elderly philosopher – one of the speakers – who smiles but never speaks to her, and she regrets that she has her own event to attend and cannot go to his. Still, since they take the elevator at the same time, morning and evening, she finds that “our tacit bond puts me obscurely at peace with the world.”

Opera House where the speaker gets tickets to operas, symphonies, and dance performances for the season.

Opera House where the speaker gets tickets to operas, symphonies, and dance performances for the season.

Dividing the novel into forty-six short episodes, some only a paragraph long, others up to three or four pages, the narrator talks about her life –  On the Street, In the Bookstore, In the Pool, In the Sun, At the Cash Register,  At the Coffee Bar, etc.  Strikingly, she reveals three episodes from
“In My Head.”  The first talks about solitude as her “trade,” different from her mother, who has always been afraid of being alone, and she believes that now, in old age, her mother would like to “extinguish our mutual solitude,”  something the speaker refuses to do.  She illustrates this determination in “At the Ticket Counter,” at a spectacular theatre from the 1800s, where she has gone to get tickets for the next season of operas, symphonies, and dance performances.  She changes her seats for the different performances to appreciate the “different points of view,”  reserving only one ticket for each show.  She has vivid memories of her father, who introduced her to the theatre and who wanted to take her to one play as an early birthday present, a play she never was able to see because he became ill with flu and passed away, for which her aunt reminded her that “There’s no escaping the unforeseen.  We live day by day.”


The speaker’s favorite stationery store changes into a luggage store during the year, and she is nonplussed about what to do.

The second “In My Head” talks about the unraveling of time and the fact that sometimes she just cannot get up and out of the house, afraid that she will forget something crucial, an episode that makes her nervous about the day.  That nervousness is shown that evening when at a dinner for eight people she argues with an opinionated woman about a film under discussion, eventually insulting this female guest and creating a scene from which she returns home mortified.  This scene is very different from “At the Stationer’s,”the place from which she has always bought her notebooks, folders, page markers, and printer paper, one of her favorite haunts and where she knows the owners.  This day, however, the only things in the windows are suitcases, and “the store looks hideous…bereft of character.”  When a young couple enter looking for suitcases, they clearly get pleasure from their search, and are satisfied by their eventual purchases:  She wonders if their bond will deepen,  and as she does, “The suitcases turn, for a few seconds, into enormous books: they’re swollen volumes lacking titles, lacking meaning, collected in a library for monsters or for idiots.”  Obviously, not her kind of place anymore, as she has no need for a suitcase, or monstrous books, for that matter.

Child playing tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child.

Child playing tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child.

The final “In My Head,” episode refers to her childhood at school when she hated recess though her friends were euphoric, celebrating their activities with short cries and “spontaneous exaltation.”  The game she particularly hated involved crossing the gaps between tree stumps, an activity at which she had limited skills and in which she was terrified of falling into the “empty space” between them.  The turning point in this self-centered and unproductive life occurs shortly after that when she house-sits for friends and takes care of their dog.  She has often wondered if there was a chance that she could form a relationship with the husband of the family, a question answered emphatically for her by the end of the stay and her work with the dog.  Shortly afterward, she learns that she has won a fellowship which will require her to leave her apartment, her community, her family, and her friends and move to another country for the duration.   Readers are challenged to decide what she will do, evaluating how ready she might be to leave and take on a new life, whether she is capable of finding some kind of personal fulfillment, and if she is capable of forming genuine, caring new relationships.  She and her life are, and will continue to be, challenging, no matter what she decides.


Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.john-adams.nl

San Carlo Opera House in Venice, which might be similar to the one that the speaker visits to buy tickets to shows, operas, and dance performances.  http://www.visitnaplesitaly.com

A luggage store has replaced the speaker’s favorite stationery shop:  https://www.lcct.com

The tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child:  https://modernparentsmessykids.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, India, Italy, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Jhumpa Lahiri
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/27/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318317
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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