Jhumpa Lahiri Has a Midlife Crisis
Her new novel, ‘Whereabouts’ is a slim, spare chronicle, which she originally wrote in Italian
Existential questions of midlife hover over Whereabouts, the new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri: What happens when life’s big yawning choices have all been settled? What defines an existence in which someone has renounced marriage and children and even deeply meaningful work, especially if that someone is a woman?
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Whereabouts is a slim, spare chronicle of a year in the life of an unnamed middle-aged woman in an unnamed Italian city. (The tipoff she’s in Italy are the many mentions of piazzas.) The book, which Lahiri wrote and published in Italian before translating it into English herself, is an obvious heir to Mrs. Dalloway and shares contemporary DNA with other elliptical books about women in midlife, like Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend and more recent What Are You Going Through.
The narrative unfolds in a plotless series of vignettes that Lahiri marks by where (and occasionally when) they occur: “In the Pool,” In the Hotel,” “At the Cash Register,” “In Bed,” “In August.” These section headings, along with the title, deliberately underscore the idea of place. And yet the events of the novel, such as they are—micro-incidents like a jaunt to buy theater tickets, an outburst at a dinner party, an eavesdropping session while dining at a restaurant—are not culturally or geographically specific; they could occur almost anywhere, in any modern city.
“Because when all is said and done, the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light,” the narrator says near the end of the novel, in a chapter called “Nowhere.” “It makes no difference whether I’m under a clear blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in a transparent sea in summer.” She’s talking here about her abiding sense of melancholic dissatisfaction (“Always waiting to either get somewhere or come back. Or to escape…”) regardless of where she finds herself, but it’s also an tacit authorial statement on the way location doesn’t matter, at least for her purposes.
Lahiri elides the details of personhood, too. She gives us minimal information about the nameless female protagonist. Our heroine is 45, a writer who teaches at a university (“I’m here to earn a living, my heart’s not in it”) but Lahiri never mentions what kind of writing she does, nor her academic field. She has few close relationships, so we can’t infer much about her indirectly, either. A single woman who has never married and does not have children, she has had numerous lovers—many of them married, she tells us—but only one “significant” ex, with whom she was “involved for five years,” and a mutual flirtation with a friend’s husband that adds some much-needed dramatic tension but never amounts to more than “a road not taken, a hypothetical affair.” She’s an only child whose father is dead, and she keeps her mother at arm’s length: “I have to stay poised, if not, her brooding spirit pervades mine.”
Although the lack of particulars can be frustrating, we nevertheless get a clearer sense of this persnickety, moody woman and her “spartan life” through small, incidental details, as when she refuses to lend a book of poetry to the husband of a visiting friend, or is undone by “thin, errant line” their little girl draws in ballpoint ink on the back of her white leather couch (“like a long strand of hair, innocuous, intolerable”).
As she moves around the city, flaneur-style—usually the prerogative of men in fiction—she has seemingly inconsequential encounters that act as occasions for reminiscences that deepen her characterization. When she runs into her aforementioned ex, a man who is “puerile and full of complaints,” she recalls the strange woman who rang her buzzer one day and told her they’d shared the same boyfriend for the past five years. A long weekend getaway reminds her of her incompatible parents who never went on vacation: her mother who “always wanted to visit big cities, to go to museums and sacred places,” and her father “who found all that exhausting, not to mention a waste of money.” Her local barista, she says, is “a person she confides all sorts of things to”; as she tunnels back into her past, we feel disorientingly like that barista, the recipient of intimacies from someone we don’t really know.
“Solitude: it’s become my trade,” she says, “As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” What Lahiri has written, at root, is an account of urban aloneness, which sometimes means delighting in the sublimity of one’s solitude and other times lamenting the agony of it. “Solitude demands a precise assessment of time, I’ve always understood this,” the narrator says, and indeed the novel concerns itself with how the protagonist spends her days. “Twice a week, at dinnertime,” she goes to the pool. “Twice a month, always on a Sunday,” she gets her nails done. “At least three times a week,” she eats the same sandwich, two slices of cheese on a roll.
She writes it all down in an agenda she buys “every year at the same stationary store, always the same size and number of pages,” she says, adding, “Little notebooks that with the passing of years, inevitably repeat: blue, red, black, brown…. A set of matching editions that sum up my life.” This is a book not about love or family or work, but about the dailiness of existence, and the small, oblique moments, objects, and encounters that make up a life. As a portrait of singlehood, it is at times devastatingly accurate: the “shopping bag heavy with books” she lugs to the office to unload a few at a time, the prepared food she buys, the aimless browsing of office supplies.
To readers familiar with the richness and precision of Lahiri’s previous work—novels The Namesake and The Lowland and her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies—this book will read as a stark departure in subject, style, and tone. Lahiri, who relocated to Italy in 2012 and lived there for several years, is no longer writing about Indian immigrants straddling Indian and American culture, and her prose is often austere to the point of plain. You can simply explain the latter by the fact that she’s writing in Italian, but the real question is why would a celebrated writer make that choice at all?
Lahiri, whose Bengali parents immigrated to South Kingston, Rhode Island with her as a child, has written that English, for her, “denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of her past.” In an interview, she once said, “I am working to free my work from geographic coordinates and to arrive at a more abstract sense of place.” In this novel, she has certainly arrived at that abstract sense of place, and it was arguably an emotional choice as much as an aesthetic one, freeing her from the burden of culture, language, and identity as well.
It’s a deliberate experiment, though not an entirely satisfying one: reading a novel without any anchoring specifics is, to use an apt metaphor, not unlike conversing in a foreign language you don’t know fluently. You can only go so deep. “Each session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter,” the protagonist says of her therapy sessions. One might say the same of the impressionistic sketches in this enjoyable but slight and often perplexing book.