After falling in love with Italy as a young woman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri broke with English and began writing in Italian. Her new novel — a slim and bewitching tale of a woman at her midpoint — she wrote first in Italian and has since translated. The story is told in a series of vignettes, the lengthiest six or so pages. Each is titled with the setting — in the office, at the register, on the street — and paints an exquisite picture of a single soul moving thoughtfully about her city.
‘I don’t share my life with anyone,’ says that soul early on. She lives alone in a spartan apartment, and with only herself to worry about she never fills the fridge. She teaches, though, as she reminds us: ‘I’m here to earn a living, my heart’s not in it’. Twice a week she goes for a swim, and twice a month she gets her nails done — ‘my one indulgence’. Slight variations in her routine include tasting various dishes at the local trattoria and always choosing a different seat at the theater. Her ‘daily meanderings’ are broken up by small pleasures, from a simple sandwich to a fleeting embrace.
The novel is tinged with melancholy; death stalks each vignette. Pedestrians on a bridge look like ‘skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another’. The narrator’s office feels ‘a bit sepulchral’ while the pool is a ‘container of clear water lacking life’. Her father, buried in a crypt at the heart of the city, died when she was 15 and her mother is in precarious health — ‘she’s nearing her end’. Since turning 45, the narrator too has become acquainted with odd afflictions and mysterious pains. In her own words, she is ‘a middle-aged woman, slightly on edge’.
Also, on the edge. A modern-day flâneuse, she strolls through the city and scopes the crowd from which she remains separate. She’s peripheral, privy to tender conversations and bitter fights, familiar with faces but not the people they belong to. Each of the carefully observed characters tells us something about her, from the friend who has everything she doesn’t — ‘a husband, kids, constant plans, a country house’ — to the kind philosopher whose watchful gaze seems to say: ‘Signora, I know you’re having a hard time.’ There’s the married friend ‘for whom I represent… what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?’ Whereabouts might be called a quiet book, but it isn’t without bite: ‘I’ve had my share of married men.’
Lahiri has spun a delicately layered story of a woman reflecting on her past, present and future. It lends itself to being read in a single sitting, during which time you’ll feel your own life standing still, suspended. The author has a talent for capturing the everyday, a talent the narrator acknowledges when she and her friend’s husband go their separate ways after a chance encounter: ‘Then we, too, become two shadows projected on to the wall: a routine spectacle, impossible to capture.’ Impossible for some, perhaps, but not for Jhumpa Lahiri.