Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

The book cover depicts a pale orange curtain falling waves, with dappled stripes of bright yellow sunlight across it. The title and author's name, with "winner of the Pulitzer Prize," are superimposed in white script.

By Piyali C.

In the simple, succinct, and gorgeous prose that is her trademark, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies: Stories, and other works, writes about the observations of a single, unnamed woman living alone in an unnamed city in Italy in Whereabouts. Each chapter in this book reads like a page from a beautifully crafted journal. They are chronicles of our protagonist’s day to day life – be it walking over a bridge where she occasionally comes across her ex-boyfriend, or her sojourn to her favorite sandwich store where she buys the same lunch every day, or her trip to the swimming pool where she meets women who share their stories with each other verbally, or even the stories they share through each hard-earned wrinkle on their faces or their swollen feet or the extra flesh in their midsection. The woman of our story quietly listens. Through her ruminations about her past we come to know about her parents, their eccentricities, her relationship with them, her mother’s financial dependence on her father, and her subsequent financial education to her daughter which influences the woman’s monetary decisions all her life (and not necessarily in a helpful way).

The narrator is lonely sometimes, and sometimes she cherishes her solitude. She is frustrated with the sameness of her life sometimes, and sometimes she is content simply sitting at the piazza in front of her apartment observing frenetic activities in her neighborhood. She falls asleep at night reassured by the noise of traffic and wakes up deep in the night, disconcerted at the silence around her when the sounds of automobiles have ceased. She could be any of us – a juxtaposition of contrasts – and perhaps this ‘everywoman’ trait of the protagonist makes the book and her so relatable.  Her keen sense of observation is what many of us lack these days. It was such a joy to see the world – her world and for a short time our world, too – through her eyes. Even after the book ended, I seemed to linger by the side of the piazza eyeing the sandwich store and looking at the men and women living their lives in that unnamed city in Italy. This is a deeply contemplative novel made up of vignettes from a middle aged woman’s everyday life. There is no catastrophic event in this story, no climax or anti climax. It simply tells the tale of life and in doing so it becomes strangely captivating. At the end of the day, I agree with the description that the publisher provides for this short novel – “Whereabouts is an exquisitely nuanced portrait of urban solitude…”

I would like to share a snippet just to whet your appetite for this truly beautiful literary novel so you can borrow it from Howard County Library System for your next read. There is a passage where the woman comes face to face with the man she once loved in the middle of a bridge. Lahiri writes

“We stop in the middle and look at the wall that flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. The bridge is flat and yet it’s as if the figures – vaporous shapes against the solid wall – are walking uphill, always climbing. They’re like inmates who proceed, silently, toward a dreadful end” (6-7).

This is simply one example of many where I felt Lahiri painted pictures for me with her words.

Whereabouts is also available in large print and in eBook and eAudiobook format via Overdrive/Libby. Whereabouts is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

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