Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts: A Novel (New York: Knopf, 2021), 161pp.
Jhumpa Lahiri's five previous books have earned her a trove of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Whereabouts is her third novel, and her first one since 2013. She wrote the original novel in Italian (2018), and then translated it herself back into English.
This isn't a novel in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it's a series of 46 fragmentary vignettes in 150 pages that describe one year in the life of the protagonist. Nothing at all in the novel is named, everything is anonymous—the narrator, the setting, characters, cities, books, friends, etc. The unnamed narrator is a deeply reflective woman in her mid-forties who is utterly alone.
Melancholy and a sense of ennui characterize her reflections on the everyday experiences of an ordinary life: her office, a doctor's waiting room, dinner with her few friends, visits to her mother, weekly swimming workouts, etc. She eats alone. Her heart is not in her work as a professor. She describes herself as an expert in solitude. "Solitude: it's become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it's a condition I try to perfect." Her tiny apartment is spartan. She's old enough to experience vague and worrisome ailments. She has a romantic but chaste relationship with a friend's husband, and wonders about a "hypothetical affair" with him, but she acknowledges that it would be "reckless and pointless." Late in the novel she observes: "Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I'm related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold." (original italics)
That's not quite true. There's one breakthrough moment in her mundane life when she eats a simple sandwich: "It hardly costs anything. I look for a place to sit and find a spot in the playground where they deal drugs at night, but at this time of day it's bursting with kids, parents, dogs, also a few people on their own like me. But today I don't feel even slightly alone. I hear the babble of people as they chatter, on and on. I'm amazed at our impulse to express ourselves, explain ourselves, tell stories to one another. The simple sandwich I always get amazes me, too. As I eat it, as my body bakes in the sun that pours down on my neighborhood, each bite, feeling sacred, reminds me that I'm not forsaken." In the last few pages, she leaves the city where she has lived her entire life for a year abroad. Her journey to find her place in the world through interiority and solitude continues.
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