The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

I think I started The Lowland two months ago but I might be flattering myself. It could be three. I just slogged through the first half of this book. I'd read a page or two, pat myself on the back, and then move on to something else. 

By contrast, I read the last 40% some time between last night and lunch today. 

This is a review in the sense of describing how I felt about the book, not so much trying to entice or inform new readers. So if you don't want spoilers, now's your chance to avert your eyes. 

I struggled at first because I could not bring myself to care about Udayan. At all. He seemed like exactly what he was: a tragedy waiting to happen. The only uncertainty was how many other characters he'd take down with him. 

Subhash was easier to like but passive. Actually, this is a book in which self-motivated characters who seize opportunities and take action are almost always engaged in some dubious, harmful activity. 

The first thing to really hold my attention was Gauri. And even then, it wasn't because I liked her--it was because her arc through the novel ran counter to all my expectations, and then made me question those expectations.

Gauri marries Udayan. They're young. They don't seek familial approval before tying the knot. They move in with Udayan's parents. When Udayan dies, Gauri becomes a burden. The parents can't kick her out--I had the sense that custom dictated that they treat her as a daughter, support and house her--but they make every effort to freeze her out. To make her life with them so unpleasant that anything else would have to be better. 

Subhash takes pity on Gauri. He proposes marriage. He offers to take her with him to the United States, where he's in a PhD program. Gauri is grief-stricken, terrified because she'd been involved in some of Udayan's political crimes, and she doesn't have a family of her own to fall back on. She agrees to marry Subhash because it's the best option she has.

So here's what I expected. I expected that Gauri would be grateful. I expected that she would express that gratitude by making Subhash's home life more pleasant and by helping him achieve success in his career. I assumed they'd slowly fall in love.

This is not at all what happens. 

I can't tell if Gauri is grateful or not. But, really, why did I expect that from her? She's freshly widowed and pregnant. She's paralyzed by grief, resentful of the huge change forced on her by necessity, and trying to adapt to parenthood. The life she built for herself is completely destroyed, and she sets about the process of building a new one without any particular joy. 

When I looked at things from her perspective, I understood. And I wondered why I'd been so eager to blame her.

So then it turns out the Gauri is a terrible mother and that she'd rather work towards a career in academia than stay at home with her daughter all day. She is really passionate and dedicated to her subject of choice, philosophy. But while Subhash encourages her, he also insists that she remain the primary care-giver to their daughter. He has a job, he's earning money, she isn't. But when Gauri brings up the possibility of day care or a nanny, Subhash says no. 

I still had nasty judgmental thoughts here. I judged Gauri for being an unloving, neglectful mother. I judged her for not trying harder to build a happy life with Subhash. Basically, I judged her for wanting her own happiness and her own successes. 

This is awful. I mean, I could not eliminate my hostility toward this woman, despite the fact that it was really a story about her blossoming. She found a place where she could thrive. She found people who encouraged her. It just wasn't with the man who married her out of pity, or the daughter she hadn't planned or wanted. 

But why shouldn't she get a second chance? Why should she have to set aside her ambitions?

So then the story turns away from Gauri for a while--and when it returns to her, later, I found it unconvincing; I wasn't sure where all her regret and angst came from; she didn't seem to feel any regret about neglecting her child while they were living together--and we find out how Subhash manages as a single father, how Bela struggles after her mother abandons her.

There are things about this book that just frustrated me. When we get a brief glimpse of Bijoli's point of view--Subhash and Udayan's mother--and she explains her hostility to Subhash after Udayan's death by saying "she was unable to love one without the other". 

I can accept that one character is hard hearted. That Gauri, after what she's lived through, never attaches to Subhash or to her daughter Bela. But it seems like a lot of the characters in this book experience only weak attachments to other people. The silent breakdown of Bijoli's marriage, her coldness toward her son and grandchild, Bela spending much of her adulthood punishing her father with absence. Or punishing herself. But, certainly, not doing anything to foster or encourage warmth. 

Now, the book gets its title from the two ponds near Subhash and Udayan's childhood home. The ponds that join and separate as the water level rises and lowers with the rain. The ponds that are ultimately filled in and built over. And it doesn't take much to see that the ponds are Subhash and Udayan--brothers sometimes as close as peas in a pod, at others completely alienated from one another. 

But it really seemed to me that this metaphor--the ponds and the brothers--had to be expanded. That somehow, the emotions of the characters in the book were as changeable and absolute as weather. Sometimes, the heart is full of love. But mostly, the heart is dry and cold and there's nothing that can be done about it. No point in trying. ,

Ultimately, something about the whole book made me feel like I'd been bogged down in stagnant water. These characters seemed so trapped and so helpless. Bijoli on that roof year after year, doing nothing to occupy herself, just winding down. 

I would have said there was one happy story, one character who broke free & found her own way: Gauri. But after Gauri finds the success she craves as a respected and tenured professor of philosophy, she begins to stagnate and self-recriminate and regret. 

While Subhash, after suffering passively for so long, finally gets his heart's desire. He meets a woman who loves him and wants to build a life with him, even during their sunset years. His daughter moves home and he gets to spend plenty of time with his granddaughter. He's emotionally replete after years and years of being thirsty.

On the one hand, this packed an emotional punch. I think I cried three times reading these chapters about Subhash. I really wanted someone to finally appreciate him the way he deserved. He was gentle and loving. A good man. 

On the other hand, it just bugged me that characters who were active and self-motivated always made themselves miserable, and that Gauri was left to--as far as I can tell--die miserable and alone.