Is this book a novel? A novella? A memoir? Autobiographical fiction? Whatever, I bought it because I admire the author’s writing, and I wasn’t let down.
What we have in Whereabouts is forty-six – yep, 46 – vignettes about the life of a middle-aged woman in the course of a year. Each vignette has a title, like “In the Bookstore,” or “At Dawn,” or “In the Pool.” We never know this woman’s name or what country she lives in because truly it doesn’t matter. What matters here are the sentiments that are so brilliantly painted, one vignette at a time, in a way that evokes a universality of theme.
For themes do emerge, like loneliness and isolation, family dysfunction, sadness. We see recurring characters in some of the vignettes, but still, there’s an aloneness to our heroine. Is this depressing? I didn’t find it so. There are enough small moments of joy shot through to prevent that. Our protagonist seems to be quietly reevaluating her life and slowly, subtly looking toward the future.
Whereabouts is beautifully written, poignant and spare, and elegant and wise.
My only complaint is the hype. Three points, actually.
First, Lahiri’s publisher must have felt that lacking the high drama of a plotline, something bold had to be injected into the front cover jacket blurb, which says that after a trip to the sea, the protagonist’s perspective “will abruptly change.” I reread the four pages of “By the Sea” again and again and couldn’t find any watershed moment. I searched the rest of the book, thinking there had been a mistake in the blurb, but found no abrupt change. I was also mystified by the blurb’s reference to a shadowy “him” who “both consoles and unsettles”. As blurbs go, it adds an element of mystery. But warranted? I’ll have to dig deeper to find this “him.”
Second, reviewers. My gut says they didn’t know how to react to this book. Many of the reviews I read just didn’t make sense, as though the reviewer himself/herself was trying to emulate what Lahiri has done. It works for her, but not for any reviewer.
Finally, much was made of the fact that the author wrote this book in Italian, then translated it into English herself. Oh my. Every one of my own books has been translated into another language. This is what translators do.
Those annoyances aside, there is much to think about in this little oeuvre. I’ll be pitching Whereabouts to my book group for discussion – would love each member to pick their favorite vignette and tell us why it spoke to them. Because these vignettes did speak to me. Though I have favorites, I found something to consider in each one.
A last word. Given the nature of vignettes, this book can be picked up, read for ten minutes, and put down. I recommend reading it for longer stretches. That way, the continuity comes.