Rummanah Aasi
  I had really high hopes about Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book, The Lowland. When I found an ARC of it at this past summer's ALA conference in Chicago, I grabbed a copy and couldn't wait to start it. Then all the accolades and stellar reviews poured in and my expectations grew tenfold. Now I wished I had ignored everything and read it because surprisingly I felt underwhelmed about it all.

Description: Two brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution. A powerful new novel--set in both India and America--that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.
  Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan--charismatic and impulsive--finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother's political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.
  But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family's home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind--including those seared in the heart of his brother's wife.

Review: The Lowland is one of those books that everyone seems to have loved this year, but I really didn't enjoy it. Its books like The Lowland that makes me wonder what am I missing whenever I read a glowing review. Personally, I think the book would have been much stronger if it was written as a collection of short stories rather than a novel. It has the slices of life feel to the story rather than a powerful, sweeping saga as its described on its book panel.
     The book starts off very slowly as Lahiri lays down her foundation for her novel. The Mitra brothers are inseparable even though they are complete opposites. Subhash is serious, cautious, and reliable, while Udayan is brash, impassioned, and rebellious. Suhbash is an upholder of traditional family roots of their quiet, middle-class Calcutta enclave and while Udayan questions everything. In college, Subhash studies chemistry, Udayan physics, but while Subhash prepares to go to America to earn his PhD, Udayan experiences a life-altering political awakening. 
  Unlike Lahiri's other books, there is a strong focus on politics in The Lowland. She takes time to set up the stage of the late 1960s, a time of international protest, but stops there. Udayan joins the Mao-inspired Naxalite movement, which isn't explained at all. All that I could understand from inferences is that the movement has socialism roots and demands justice for the poor. I wished Lahiri spent more time discussing the movement especially since it mattered so much to Udayan and that he was willing to alienate himself from his family. Instead of making the politics a theme of the story it comes across as a contrived plot device that drives the rest of the story. 
  Udayan also secretly marries self-reliant, scholarly Gauri, but we don't see this develop as all which also hinders not only the emotional impact of the story but rather another contrived plot device. Subhash’s indoctrination into American life and Rhode Island’s seasons and seashore is bracing and that of a typical immigrant story, while Udayan’s descent into the Naxalite underground, which stays firmly in the background, puts him in grave danger. 
 Most of the characters felt more touch and go for me to wrap my head around them. I only felt like I understood Gauri who is painted by many reviewers as the villain of the story. She is undoubtedly selfish and unabashedly ambitious, but also in a way victim of society. I didn't get the sense that she married Udayan and later Subhash because she loved either of them as a person but rather they were her ticket to a bright, independent future. She reminded me a lot of Edna from Kate Chopin's The Awakening. She made me wonder why can't female characters behave like male characters and be only seen as negative? Why is it that male characters can be jerks but still earn our sympathies while female characters will only remain as jerks and nothing else?
  As tragedies, and revelations multiply over the years, we do see the characters go through the psychological nuances of conviction, guilt, grief, marriage, and parenthood. I just wanted the book to dig a little deeper and not just scratch the surface of these themes. The Lowland is a decent read but I wanted and needed more especially from a very capable writer and one who was nominated for the Booker Prize this year. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, sexual situations, and mature themes. Recommended for adults only.

If you like this book try: The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghes
7 Responses
  1. I've never read anything by Lahiri, to be honest, but this sounds just a tiny bit intimidating. In fact, it sounds overly ambitious, like the author took on far too much and ended up not exploring it sufficiently. It's a pity, really.

  2. Oh what a great observation about male/female characters! Now I'll be thinking of that for a while.... what a great question!

  3. @Maja: I absolutely loved The Namesake which struck a deep chord with me and I really liked her last collection of short stories. I struck out with this one. Oh well. Hope the next one is better!

    @Melissa: I've been thinking a lot about the double standards that we readers have when it comes to what's acceptable for males and females. This article really got my thinking:

  4. Jenny Says:

    It's always extra disappointing when a book everyone else seems to rave about doesn't work for you, isn't it Rummanah? That happened to me with Throne of Glass. I think I was the only blogger on the planet that wasn't blown away by it. *hangs head* I'm sorry this one wasn't everything you hoped and didn't really dig down deep in a way that would have had more of an emotional impact. I hope whatever you read next does just that!

  5. Candace Says:

    I hadn't heard of this one before but it's not of a genre I guess I pay much attention to? I'm not sure, but it doesn't sound like one that would really work for me.

  6. I'm finally back (and just received Namesake from you in the mail :)! As I was reading the summary, I wondered what the Naxalite movement was. So, it's too bad the book really doesn't explain the movement considering its importance to one of the characters. I guess I'll be googling it next to find out more just for curiosity's sake.

  7. Aylee Says:

    Aw, it sucks when you get your hopes up for a book after reading tons of glowing reviews and end up disappointed! I, on the other hand, have not heard anything about this book before, so your review is my first exposure. I'm not sure it's the book for me, but it was still interesting reading your thoughts!

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