- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

India, the children Americanized. Values collide. Generations are often at arm’s length, although the traditional respect of children for their parents persists, as does the unspoken parental hope that offspring will thrive and be successful.

In Miss Lahiri’s stories there is pain and loss, rejection and acceptance. There is an emotional resolution, a cathartic moment of understanding and sometimes bittersweet acceptance. Each story begins with a sentence that throws the reader into immediate intimacy with the essence of the tale.

The beautiful title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” begins, “After her mother’s death, Ruma’s father retired from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for many decades and began traveling in Europe, a continent he’d never seen.”

The father comes to visit Ruma in her new home in Seattle, while her American husband is on a business trip. Ruma’s unease and slight resentment give way to affectionate enjoyment as she watches her father charm her young son. She appreciates the older man’s fastidious attention to her household and the garden he is planting for her. He encourages her to go back to work for he understands that a child’s needs eventually “dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap. That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her… . He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.”

In “Only Goodness,” Sudha as a college student introduces her younger brother to beer. He becomes an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, a situation their mother refuses to recognize. Sudha “pitied her mother, pitied her refusal to accommodate such an unpleasant and alien fact, her need to blame London, falls in love, marries and has a little boy. When an apparently reformed brother comes to visit, she allows him to babysit with disastrous consequences. She is filled with guilt, “thinking of her husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other.”

Part two of “Unaccustomed Earth” is a trio of related stories about Hema and Kaushik. Kaushik and his parents left Calcutta when Hema was a little girl. Some years later, they returned and lived temporarily with Hema’s family.

The friendship between the families wanes. Kaushik’s mother dies. While Kaushik is in college, his father remarries a much younger widow with two little girls. Kaushik is unable to come to terms with his father’s new family. After a cruel exchange with the girls, he leaves his father’s home and wanders the earth as a news photographer.

Many years later, Kaushik and Hema are reunited in Rome, where 37-year-old Hema is visiting en route to India to the equivalent of an arranged marriage. Their passionate affair does not change Hema’s mind. She sees her future life in the security of a solid marriage rather than in the uncertainty of life with her lover.

The beauty of these stories is their straightforward simplicity and intelligent prose expressing ideas and emotions that are complex and universal. They transcend the tradition-bound Bengalis, whether they live in the New World or the Old, and relate to parents and children, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends everywhere. The nature of marriage, the words that remain unspoken, love expressed or sometimes merely felt, the guilt created by deeds done or omitted, innocence lost and maturity gained, are part of these wise and beautifully written stories.

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At the conclusion of “Chocolat,” a pregnant Vianne and her little daughter Anouk fled from scandal in the French village where Vianne had enchanted the population with her fabulous hand-made chocolates.

Four years have passed and in her sequel, “The Girl with No Shadow” (Yanne Charbonneau

Anouk (now Annie) and baby Rosette now living in Montmartre selling commercially made candies in a building owned by Thierry, a middle-aged businessman who adores her, if not her daughters, and offers marriage. Yanne has given up magic and is determined to live an ordinary life for the sake of her children.

Enter Zozie de l’Alba with her “pink streaked hair and scarlet shoes … her exuberantly colored charity-shop clothes, flung together like the contents of a child’s dressing up box, but oddly right on her, somehow.” Zozie is a witch who steals and assumes lives. She recognizes in young Anouk the girl’s magical powers and sets about to seduce her into a life of witchcraft. She befriends Yanne. With Zozie’s charm, vivacity and help, the shop prospers and Yanne begins to make her chocolates by hand again. Anouk is fascinated by Zozie.

Roux, Yanne’s former love who is the father of baby Rosette, reappears. Yanne is torn between the life of freedom Roux offers and the security and peace of mind that marriage to Thierry entails.

As in most fairy tales, there is a happy ending; evil is thwarted and true love triumphs; children and parents are reunited. “The Girl With No Shadow” - an allusion to the story of the boy who sold his shadow in exchange for a promise of eternal life - lacks the exuberant, sensuous quality of “Chocolat.” The chocolates themselves are less succulent and without the mysterious, magical quality they had in “Chocolat.” The character of Vianne lacks force and color, and the device of having the story told in the first person alternating between Zozie, Vianne and Anouk is confusing at times.

Yet, the minor characters are lively, if predictable, and Zozie’s manipulations are fun. Miss Harris has some witty touches, for example, giving Vianne French last names that translate from “pebble” as a child, to “rock” in “Chocolat,” to the colorless “carbon” in the sequel. “The Girl with no Shadow” is an easy, enjoyable summer read.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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