Book Review: ‘Roman Stories’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Title: Roman Stories
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton
224 Pages
Release date: October 2023
Paperback M.R.P: INR 499

“Certain stories are hard to bear, as are certain things we’ve lived or observed or fumbled or explored with great care.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest, Roman Stories, is a collection of nine introspective short stories that have been translated by the author from her adopted language, Italian, along with Brooklyn-based translator Todd Portnowitz.
In ‘The Boundary’, a family comes to live for a while in a house in the Roman countryside. Being from a city, they appreciate the rural landscape around them. Being in touch with nature proves to be good for their children, and helps them think, rest and dream. The story is told through the eyes of the caretaker’s daughter whose parents are immigrants, much like Lahiri herself. Later in the story, the narrator reveals that her family also previously lived in the city, and had moved to the countryside for work after having faced a brutal incident. Over a period of time, they had gotten used to this untamed place, living among animals and cultivating land – and “the clean air, the hills, the clouds blazing at sunset.” At the end of the story, the family leaves to return to the city, while the narrator gets the house ready for the next visitors who are about to arrive.

In ‘The Reentry’, two women who have moved back to Rome after having lived away for a while, meet each other after a year. While one of them is mourning after a separation and the loss of her father, the other is a university professor who is relatively happier. In ‘The Procession’, a couple comes to Rome to celebrate the wife’s fiftieth birthday. The city was part of her past – she had studied here for a year when she was nineteen, and fell in love for the first time with a Roman boy.
In ‘P’s Parties’, a Roman couple finds comfort and community with foreigners at their friend’s annual birthday party. The couple had been married for 23 years with the predictable ups and downs and no major disruptions. “As with any couple, things left unsaid enter in to maintain your aging affection,” writes Lahiri. At one such party, the narrator, a writer, shares “a fevered and fragmentary exchange” with L, one of P’s distraught foreigner friends – and begins to feel a strange, inexplicable bond with her. Over the years at P’s annual gathering, they run into each other again. The story takes an unexpected friend when L becomes a friend of the narrator’s wife, something that he begins to agonise over. While on a vacation to an island, they meet L and the narrator happens to cross a line. The narrator ends by recalling P’s parties as a setting that he cherished – in which he had briefly been “a wayward husband, an inspired author, a happy man”.

Jhumpa Lahiri started writing in Italian in 2015.

In ‘Dante Alighieri’, a young girl discovers that her friend’s ‘steady’ boyfriend is actually in love with her. Though flattered and even seeming to reciprocate his feelings, she, however, turns him down for the sake of friendship – even though her friend stops talking to her. Later, in what is the longest story in this anthology, she gets married to another man, moves to Rome and has a daughter. “You travel a certain distance, you desire and make decisions, and you’re left with recollections, some shimmering and some disturbing, that you’d rather not conjure up,” reflects Lahiri.
‘The Steps’ centres on a public staircase connecting two neighbourhoods, and the various residents who routinely climb up and down it – a mother, a young girl, a widow, a screenwriter, an expat wife and two brothers. The story highlights much of Rome’s abundant social and cultural diversity as well as the struggles of a changing city.
Given that all the stories are set in the Italian capital, Lahiri makes a number of fleeting observations about Rome. For instance, in ‘Notes’, she refers to it as a city with “tarnishing water”, and comments that water stains everything that it touches in Rome. In ‘The Reentry’, she describes it as a place that is “both familiar and full of secrets, with discoveries that reveal themselves only slowly and by chance.” In ‘The Delivery’, she explains that the ancient city seems to belong only to the young after midnight – “a joyful kingdom, ephemeral, all their own.”
In a sense, the book is a kind of ode to the rich and historic city of Rome. The stories are recounted in Lahiri’s typical style, and make for a pleasing read indeed, and are a first after the acclaimed author’s 2008 book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.

‘Roman Stories’ is available for sale on Amazon.

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