Get our free newsletter
Jhumpa Lahiri recently told New York magazine that she was tired of being asked why she sticks to writing about Bengali-Americans. “It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is,” she says. Probably, but her fiction does raise the question, given the fairly small patch of turf it maps: It’s not just that she always writes about Bengali-Americans, it’s that she writes almost exclusively about first- and second-generation Bengali-Americans in New England, nearly all of whom are highly educated and sturdily upper-middle-class. So the stories in her second short-story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do have a similar emotional pitch, but her characterizations are deep, diverse, and insightful. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” she uses the lead character’s return to his prep school to show how easily old wounds get reopened; though “Only Goodness” has a relatively mundane plot about an alcoholic sibling, Lahiri effectively evokes the toll that yearslong worry creates, and the story’s ending exposes a host of concerns about class, maturity, and morality. Those endings are important: Lahiri’s stories are elegantly crafted throughout, but they’re only as good as their turns, and she’s at her best when she has a clear and convincing destination. That was the problem with her 2003 novel, The Namesake, whose lead character largely swam in a sea of identity crises, and the sole clunker in Unaccustomed Earth, “Hell-Heaven,” stops with a forced, O. Henry-ish thud. More often, she calibrates the emotional temperature slowly, never better than in the closing story, “Going Ashore,” a romantic tale that moves so unassumingly that its heartbreak doesn’t register until you’re drowning in it. Lahiri discusses and signs copies of her work at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. $6. (202) 364-1919.