Even though it is broken up into eight parts, the first two chapters of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, contain almost everything that is interesting about the book. The life and times of revolutionary-minded Udayan and his brother (the novel’s flat protagonist), Subhash, could have been published as a standalone novella or short story — the latter a form at which the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lahiri excels, as evidenced by her exquisite 1999 collection, Interpreter of Maladies — that would have had far more power than the novel in which it ended up. In those first 80-plus pages, Lahiri neatly covers revolution in Calcutta in the 1960s, and America through the eyes of Subhash, who leaves for Rhode Island to continue his studies (both places the author has visited in past works).
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the rest of the The Lowland, much of the book seemed extraneous (Porochista Khakpour shared a similar feeling towards the book in her review, which she saw as riddled with common pitfalls of many great short-story authors who move on to writing novels). I would have settled for something on family and revolution, or another of Lahiri’s meditations on America through the eyes of an immigrant. As is, the clichéd “tale of two brothers” angle weighs down The Lowland, especially because the book chooses to focus on the less interesting sibling.
Of course, some would say the two themes that appealed to me are as played out as any other literary trope, but I’d argue otherwise: Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, Dissident Gardens, proves that the family and revolution story still works, and will always be an attractive one to writers as well as readers. The truth is, an author with a compelling story to tell can make even the most tired themes feel new. Unfortunately, in The Lowland, Lahiri’s characteristically clean, graceful prose is mostly used to stretch out a novella’s worth of inspiration to the length of a 350-page novel.