BOOK: In her second novel, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri introduces the reader to Subhash and Udayan Mitra, brothers born in Calcutta 15 months apart, who display drastically different personalities. Subhash, the timid firstborn, obeys his parents and cares very much about their wishes. Udayan boldly challenges authority, marries without his parents' permission, and becomes involved in the Maoist Naxalite movement, which erupted in the late 1960s in Naxalbari, a poor town 400 miles from Calcutta. The brothers live with their parents near a golf course in which two ponds, normally separated by a strip of earth known as the lowland, overflow during the monsoon season and become one. This symbolizes the two boys who, in youth, seem to exist as one entity but separate into distinct personalities in adulthood, with Subhash leaving India to study marine biology in Rhode Island.
WHY READ? Lahiri has established a reputation for understated but exquisitely crafted short stories that expose the inner lives of her characters. Her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and her second, Unaccustomed Earth, was listed at the top of the New York Times Book Review's list of the 100 Best Books of 2008. Her first novel, The Namesake, was made into an acclaimed film by director Mira Nair.
The Lowland has not garnered the same rapturous acclaim. Critics complain about the textbook-like explanation of the Naxalite movement, and find her understated prose humorless. But Lahiri displays her signature knack for introducing readers to the silent currents within her characters — an aloof wife, for example, feels her unborn baby "nestled inside her, providing company but also letting her be." And the story eventually coalesces into a soft-spoken parable about the complexity of kindness — about how easily even seemingly selfless acts can be tainted by self-interest and the unacknowledged expectation of reward. Thus the story ultimately transcends Lahiri's familiar preoccupation with the little frictions that develop when two cultures rub against each other in a single human heart, freeing her to explore the quiet complexities that reside within us all.
MAKE IT: Rhode Island abounds with seafood, so crab cakes with a dash of curry would provide an appropriate snack that blends the two locales where The Lowland takes place.
TAKE IT: Many grocery stores now sell crab cakes that are quite good.
By Tom Valeo, Special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions, send an email to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.