Book Club Review: “Interpreter of Maladies”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 1999

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: A book with AAPI main characters.

Book Description: Navigating between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. In “A Temporary Matter,” published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession. Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant.

Kate’s Thoughts

It’s not often that book club takes on a literary tale, so this time around we were stretching our limits with Jhumpa Lahiri’s well beloved short story collection “Interpreter of Maladies”. I’m someone who does try to tackle literary fiction every once in awhile, and this had been on my list, so I was excited to finally check it out, short stories aside. As we all know, short stories and I don’t always get along, but I like to think that I am game when it comes to book club! And overall I definitely appreciated the acclaim this book has, and how important it was when it first came out.

As always, I will focus on the stories I liked best. The first one that really stood out to me was “When Mr. Pizada Came to Dine”. This one is told from the perspective of a little girl whose family opens up their dinner table to a man named Mr. Pirzada, who is in the U.S. for research and away from his wife and daughters who are still in Pakistan. As our narrator gets closer to Mr. Pirzada, she learns about the conflict he left at home, as well the divides between India and Pakistan, and the Civil War and ongoing conflict going on between Pakistan and India that leaves Mr. Pirzada wondering how his family is doing. This one is through the eyes of a child, but definitely conveys the emotional conflict that the family friend is going through, as well as conveying a coming of age understanding about a life that she has never known, but is happening across the world. I was very invested in Mr. Pirzada and his family, and thought that the emotional beats were well achieved. The other story that really stood out was “This Blessed House”, which is the story of Sanjeev and Twinkle, newlyweds who are settling into their new home in Connecticut. As they look through the house they keep finding Catholic symbols and objects, and while Twinkle is tickled, Sanjeev is more and more frustrated with her fixation. I thought this one had some very funny moments, but I also liked the examination of a newly married couple who are still getting to know each other, and perhaps realizing each other’s foibles.

There were other well done stories in this collection, and I found Lahiri’s writing style and gifts for imagery to be stark and very engaging. It has a lot of difficult themes, from family strife to racism to trauma and loss, but they all come together in the end to make a well realized and melancholy collection of experiences of Indian Americans from all backgrounds and back stories. While I still have a hard time with short story collections based on my own personal biases wtih the format, I thought that “Interpreter of Maladies” did a really good job of stringing them together even without making direction connections. I’m glad that we tackled it, because it gave me the push to actually check it out!

Rating 8: A well written and melancholy collection of stories about love, loss, culture, and identity, “Interpreter of Maladies” is lyrical and powerful.

Book Club Questions

  1. Do you have a favorite story in this collection? What was it about that story you liked?
  2. This book has a lot of themes involving love and marriage. What were your thoughts on the different romantic relationships in the various stories?
  3. The immigration theme in this book has a focus on struggle and difficulties to adjust to a new culture and home. Do you think that a lens of struggle is seen as much in stories about the immigrant experience these days as opposed to twenty years ago?
  4. What did you think of the writing style in this book? Did you feel that it connected the stories together well?
  5. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Interpreter of Maladies” is included on the Goodreads lists “South Asian Fiction by Women”, and “Immigrant Voices (Fiction)”.

Next Book Club Pick: “Travellers Along the Way” by Aminah Mae Safi

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