When Unaccustomed Earth, a story collection by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri was about to be published, Isaac Chotiner of Atlantic magazine interviewed her. He asked 18 questions. Just four of them were about the themes of Unaccustomed Earth, and three of those were about marriage.
Lahiri does have a lot to say about marriage and family, especially immigrant families and their children. But I was struck by her beautiful renderings of the appeal of solitude, and of quiet, absorbing work. Some of Lahiri’s characters, whether married, single, or widowed, cherish their time alone.
In this excerpt from the story, “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit, a married man, talks about his time away from his wife Megan and daughter Monika:
“Wasn’t it since Monika’s birth that so much of his and Megan’s energy was devoted not to doing things together but devising ways so that each could have some time alone, she taking the girls so that he could go running in the park on her days off, or vice versa, so that she could browse in a bookstore or get her nails done? And wasn’t it terrible, how much he looked forward to those moments, so much so that sometimes even a ride by himself on the subway was the best part of the day? Wasn’t it terrible that after all that work one put into finding a person to spend one’s life with, after making a family with that person, even in spite of missing that person, as Amit missed Megan night after night, that solitude was what one relished most, the only thing that, even in fleeting, diminished doses, kept one sane?”
In “Going Ashore,” Hema, a Latin scholar, is away from her professorship at Wellesley, on a visiting lectureship in Rome. She had been in a romantic relationship with one man, and now was engaged to another in an arranged marriage, but this time in Rome was her own. She is staying in Giovanna’s apartment while Giovanna is away:
“In Rome she savored her isolation, immersed without effort in the silent routine of her days…”
“In the mornings she made espresso and heated up milk and spread jam on squares of packaged toast, and by eight she was at Giovanna’s desk, colonized now by the ferment of Hema’s books, her notebooks, her laptop, her Latin grammar and dictionary. In spite of the hundreds of things she might be doing or seeing in the city, until one o’clock each day she maintained this routine…it was this aspect of her job that required her to sit for hours alone at a desk that fulfilled her more than anything.”
“…Hema had not yet called anyone, not contacted any of Giovanna’s friends so they could meet her for coffee or drive her out to Tivoli or Ostia, as Giovanna assured her they would. She was content to spend her days alone, working, reading, and then having lunch by the Portico. In the afternoons she wandered in and out of churches, along dark cramped streets that opened into enormous light-filled squares…In the evenings, she retreated, preparing dinner at home, simple meals she ate while watching Italian television.”
In the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” a widower flies from India to visit his daughter, who is living with her husband and young son in Seattle:
“He stared out the window at a shelf of clouds that was like miles and miles of densely packed snow one could walk across. The sight filled him with peace; this was his life now, the ability to do as he pleased…”
“…He knew that it was not for his sake that his daughter was asking him to live here. It was for hers. She needed him, as he’d never felt she’d needed him before…And because of this the offer upset him more. A part of him, the part that would never cease to be a father, felt obligated to accept. But it is not what he wanted. Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact. He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage. He didn’t want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill up with things over the years, as the children grew, all the things he’d recently got rid of, all the books and papers and clothes and objects one felt compelled to possess, to save. Life grew and grew until a certain point. The point he had reached now.”
Do you have any favorite literary passages about the appeal of solitude?