Whereabouts is Jhunpa Lahiri’s first novel in ten years.

I don’t know what to make of it.

I’ve read a couple of Lahiri’s earlier books: Interpreter of Maladies, her debut collection of short stories for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, and The Namesake. They’re both beautifully written and richly detailed. You won’t find a lot of action in Lahiri’s stories, at least I didn’t. They unfold slowly, subtly.

Whereabouts takes this style of writing to an extreme.

Cover of Whereabouts

By Jhumpa Lahiri
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021

It’s about an unnamed woman in an unnamed city. I presume it takes place somewhere in Italy because there are Italian words like piazza and trattoria throughout the book, but Italy is never explicitly named. In fact, there are no names at all in Whereabouts.

The book is divided 46 very short chapters. They’re like journal entries. Each one gives a glimpse into a moment, a day or a weekend of the woman’s life. Together, they span a full year. But except for the last few chapters, the sequence isn’t very important. You could shuffle most of the book like a deck of cards and read the chapters in any order without detracting from the story. About the only thing you’d miss would be the progression of the seasons. 

Gradually we learn about her. The woman is unmarried and childless. She teaches at a small local university. She seems to have quite a few friends and a lover or two, but she is not especially close to anyone.

She is alone and melancholy, unable, it seems, to form attachments. She struggles like many of us, I suppose, to understand her parents’ marriage and her place in it.

The most significant “event” of the book is that she decides she will not have an affair with her friend’s husband with whom she has been chastely flirting for years.

At the end of the book she accepts a fellowship at a university in a neighboring country. She packs up her things and heads off to a new city where she knows no one and will almost certainly be even lonelier than she is now.

Maybe it’s best not to think of Whereabouts as a story. It’s more like a portrait.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants from Kolkata. The family moved to the US when she was three and she and grew up in Rhode Island. She now lives in Rome with her husband and two children.

I certainly admire Lahiri’s writing. It’s simple, elegant, and evocative. And I’m impressed that she wrote Whereabouts in Italian and then translated it into English herself. 

It’s an excellent piece of craft, but I still don’t understand what this book is trying to say.

Maybe I should just stick to non-fiction.

Have you read Whereabouts? Were you as puzzled as I am? Comments welcome.

Thanks for reading.

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