Meave Gallagher: Hi, everyone, and welcome back for the eighth week of Camp ToB Summer 2021! As a refresher, this is how it works: Each week from now through the end of August, we're going to discuss a novel (selected by you, the readers), at a pace of two books a month. At the end of each month, you will vote for one title as your favorite, and at the end of the summer, the community will pick one of the three favorites to advance to a berth in the 2022 Tournament of Books (ToB).
FYI, the five books we read this summer that don't win may still qualify for the 2022 ToB's long or short lists.
This is my final week facilitating Camp conversations, and we're going to spend it with the second half of Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts. Our Activity Leader is New Yorker-cum-Parisian Gail Negbaur. Hi, Gail! Please introduce yourself to Camp.
Gail Negbaur: Hi Meave. Very happy to join in this conversation on Whereabouts. I'm originally from New York, grew up in the city and was always a voracious reader (flashlight under the covers in pre-Kindle times).
Meave: I, too, went from flashlight-under-the-covers to e-reader-under-the-covers. Definitely easier to accidentally stay up too late reading these days. Where in New York did you grow up?
Gail: I grew up in Manhattan: 88th St. in a sleepy neighborhood near the East River.
Meave: Which could very well be code for "Gracie Mansion." Or not. But it could be. I'm just saying.
Gail: After dabbling in musical theater in college, I ended up a lawyer. I moved to Paris over 30 years ago and have been here ever since. Reading in English has remained one of the best ways I stay in touch with my background. The New Yorker Radio Hour, the New York Times Book Review, and Book Riot are on my weekly podcast roster.
Meave: So you've spent the past three decades immersed in some serious French. How do you find transitioning between it and your native language? I've worked with children with different levels of English proficiency, and every one of them would sometimes speak this amazing sort of creole, with words and grammatical constructions from both their first and second (sometimes third) languages—like their brains were thinking in multiple languages at once, which always impressed me.
Gail: I transition pretty easily. I sometimes forget words in one language or the other, and my kids do a mix of "franglais" (French and English), which is impressive. When she was little, my daughter used to yell for something in one language and if she didn't get it, translate it into the other language! Worked like a charm ("milk!" "lait!").
Meave: That's adorable, and very clever. I've always admired the way some people's minds can jump from one language to another so nimbly. That was the only good reason to watch the NYC mayoral debates this year—the incredible American Sign Language interpreters. But leaving aside the linguistic reveries, how did you come across the ToB?
Gail: I discovered the ToB several years ago—not sure exactly when or how. I am always intrigued by the list as so often, even though I really try to follow book news, I discover books I've never heard of. I usually get through most of the shortlist (except for the fantasy ones, which I admit I usually skip). Loved last year's extra Tournament between the winners! Have made a few online friends through the ToB, which is an added plus.
Meave: The Tournament masterminds do try to offer a wide selection. Funny you usually skip the fantasy; that is a category—well, "genre" books especially—I've been happy to see more of on the lists lately. Any particular reason for skipping them?
Gail: Fantasy is just not my favorite genre. Sometimes I'm surprised and I like the occasional time travel book, but mostly I look for juicy contemporary or historical fiction.
Meave: Since you said you've made some ToB friends, I must ask: Are you a member of the Commentariat, Gail?
Gail: I am not a prolific member of the Commentariat—but I dabble.
Meave: Even the quietest among us know how it feels to be moved to comment. And today you're the one provoking those comments; how exciting! Speaking of, where were we in Whereabouts? When we left our unnamed narrator in her unnamed-but-presumably-Italian city last week, despite the pleasure she was taking in patronizing her neighbor's jumble sale, neither Anita nor I was optimistic that our narrator would be able to make any positive changes in her otherwise depressive life. Still, I had a lot of notes for the second half of Whereabouts, in which our narrator continues grappling with her solitude, her relationships with her (living) mother, (deceased) father, and friends, and ultimately departs for a yearlong fellowship in another country. How much of a Lahiri-head are you?
Gail: I had read quite a bit of Lahiri in the past. Absolutely adored The Namesake and The Interpreter of Maladies. As a foreigner who raised my children in France but wanted to be sure they still felt "American," I really related to the issues of biculturalism and the struggle this represents for both the children and the parents. When I made the choice to raise my family abroad, I focused on the positive—how lucky my future children were to have two languages, two cultures, two "homes." It was only with time that I realized that it was a double-edged sword. Yes, they have two cultures, but they somehow never are totally at "home" anywhere. Lahiri caught that beautifully in her earlier works.
Meave: That may be the definition of "bittersweet." I've always thought of the advantages of being raised in two cultures, having native fluency in two languages, but the disadvantages, the feeling of dislocation wherever you are, sound tough.
Gail: When I heard that Lahiri had moved to Rome and was now writing in Italian and translating her work back into English, I have to admit my first thought was, "Why?" Was it because she needed a new challenge—once you have a Pulitzer, it is hard to see what you do next? Even after 30 years in France, if I were to write a book or a short story, it would never occur to me to do it in French. I would have trouble expressing myself truly—as you are not quite the same person somehow in the other language. Lahri lived in Rome for two years, learned the language and then did it. Kudos to her for trying, but not sure the result is so successful.
Meave: Yes, that is exactly what I've been thinking—how much of an "Italian" novel is Whereabouts versus how much is it Lahiri performing an extended writing exercise.
Gail: I have to admit that reading Whereabouts, knowing that it was first written in Italian and then translated, kept nagging at me. I'm not sure the choppy, short sentences would have bothered me as much if I hadn't known it was a translation and written by a non-native speaker. I did feel that the style was different from her earlier works.
Meave: Again, I wholly agree with you here. I don't want to diminish her accomplishment, but yeah, the whole thing reads as a little off. I don't think I ever fully adjusted to the rhythm.
Gail: I also found some of the word choices strange—almost as though she had looked up words and ended up with a Google choice that wasn't exact. One example of this is in "At Dinner" when, in describing the scene where the narrator loses her cool in a discussion with another woman, she writes: "The husband looks at me, gelid. I've just attacked the women he loves and would like to have a family with." I've never heard the word "gelid." But I found the phrase quite beautiful.
Meave: Well, now you've send me on a quest: "Gelid," according to several sources including Merriam-Webster, is a 16th-century word of Latin origin, and according to the original Italian text, Lahiri's done a word-for-word translation: "Il marito mi fissa, gelido." I wonder if it's more common in Italian than English, where it does sound kind of archaic. Although one might call implying that Lahiri used the dreaded Google while she was writing and/or translating rather gelid, too. Do you read much literature in translation?
Gail: I do read quite a lot of translations, but only from languages I don't read (I try not to read English books in French, or vice versa). Sometimes I find the English strained—but not always; for example, reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, I never noticed they were translated. By the way, Anne Goldstein was also the translator that Lahiri used for her first book [Goldstein is Ferrante's English translator—ed.].
Meave: Oh yeah, Anne Goldstein is apparently the new William Weaver, bringing those complicated Italians to the English-speaking masses. Speaking of translation, I thought the narrator's flight of fancy about the Italian word for jewelry box jarring, so much so that I consulted the original text again. In the translation, she says, "…It must be here, in some jewelry box (though I prefer 'joy box' for portagioie, which, come to think of it, is the most beautiful of Italian words)." In the original, the passage goes, "…Sarà da qualche parte, in qualche portagioie, se ci penso la parola più bella che ci sia." There's no parenthetical about portagioie being the most beautiful Italian word here; she just calls it "the most beautiful word there is" (translation: my husband). By having the narrator essentially acknowledge that she's speaking Italian, and then explain the literal English translation, it seems like it's no longer the narrator speaking, but the author-as-translator. Did it stand out to you at all, too? I was really surprised her editor was OK with it.
Gail: That's interesting. I admit I kind of skipped over this section, as I didn't really find it that intriguing. As I read the book, I originally thought the narrator was a doppelganger for the author, and it wasn't until quite a way through I realized she was Italian and not a displaced American, like the author. You are right, that is a bit strange.
Meave: Well, Lahiri says she intentionally omitted specific, identifying details about the narrator and her environs, but I'm not sure this method of conveying a sense of displacement is successful. I mostly felt disconnected from her—except maybe in that dinner party scene you were talking about, where she loses control and is rude to some stranger, and walks home burning with shame while acknowledging no one else will remember what she said. This scene was pretty endearing, actually.
Gail: Her exasperation at lashing out is heartfelt. I recently was at a dinner party where someone else lost their cool over a political conversation and I imagine that he, much like the narrator, must have felt a similar regret afterward. But this isn't the chapter that endeared the narrator to me most—my favorite in this section was "On the Phone." More on this in a bit.
Meave: Do you get the impression our narrator really has that many friends? I've read the book twice and I cannot get a grasp on the contours of our narrator's life, how much time she spends talking to merchants and waitstaff and colleagues versus time with real, loving friends.
Gail: I got the feeling that the narrator was terribly lonely and constantly overinterpreting everything because she was alone. You are right: This is why her relationship to merchants and conversations with people she meets are so important to her. She clearly suffers from anxiety (a number of the chapters focus on her inability to sleep or get out of bed).
Meave: I know this is a very culturally biased opinion, but I wish she had a good psychiatrist. Last week, Anita noted our narrator's unreliability, and I kind of want to explore that as it relates to the narrator's relationship with men. She says she has this married friend—or rather, the husband of a friend of hers—on the back burner; whenever they interact, she makes sure to mention the possibility of an affair. She talks about how "like all women, [she's] had [her] share of married men," which is quite a generalization, and then there's this whole episode where "one of [her] lovers" keeps pocket-dialing her until he deliberately calls her to ask her out, which she refuses because she's annoyed about the pocket-dialing. I'm wondering, how many of these relationships are real? We never see her on dates, or even interact in a forthrightly romantic manner with any man.
Gail: As I mentioned above, I really loved the section "On the Phone." Here we see the narrator not as the stereotypical angry mistress, but to the contrary, the unwitting witness to her lover's day due to pocket dialing, or some other technological error on his part. The lover then finally does call and lies about his very boring day. The conclusion, when she tells him she had a headache all day and then proceeds to go eat alone, is wonderful!
Meave: Would you mind elaborating on that? What made it wonderful for you? I'm not saying I was eager for her to go out with the first person available, but it would've been nice for her to, I don't know, have a friend to have a good laugh about it over dinner, too.
Gail: I thought it captured so well her frustration at dealing with this guy who clearly lies whenever he wants, and then her reaction is not to confront him with his behavior but instead just move on.
Meave: Yeah, she does win that little power game. How honestly do you think our narrator portrays her romantic relationships?
Gail: Again, I think our narrator is lonely and has had her share of affairs but is alone now. I agree with you that the statement that "all women have had their share of married men" is a bit silly. I guess married women have all had their share of married men (well, at least one), but I'm pretty sure not all single women have chosen to date married men. The narrator is trying to justify the choices she has made, which is human, I guess.
Meave: Do you believe these frissons she says she feels between her and her friend's husband are one-sided, or mutual? She doesn't seem to express any explicit sexual desire, and she (wisely, in my opinion) douses the torch she's been carrying for her friend's husband once she forces herself to recontextualize him as part of a family.
Gail: I don't think Lahiri really gives us reason to believe the narrator has made up all the lovers. It is sure that the narrator fantasizes about what could have been with her "married friend," and then when she has to take care of his dog for a few days, does realize that it is just a fantasy, and she is to remain an outsider here as she is in her life in general. I also thought it was likely that she was misinterpreting the married friend's intentions, but this is what this book is all about. All we get is the narrator's inner struggles between what is, what could have been, what might be. In the end I found this meandering rather banal and boring. I would have rather gotten out of her head a bit more!
Meave: Yes. Yes! The novel feels more claustrophobic the longer it goes on, like we're fully trapped in her head with her, and I did not especially enjoy the experience. Honestly, if we weren't discussing the book for camp, I would not have finished it.
Gail: I have to say I was disappointed, too. There were moments that were poignant, and Lahiri remains a beautiful writer, but the story got me nowhere. I did not care about our lady and found her issues quite trite and dull.
Meave: I love it; one person's "perfect pandemic book" is another's "trite and dull" story that goes nowhere. And it feels like our narrator doesn't want to change, either. She seems so happy walking that friend's dog, but it never occurs to her to get a dog of her own. I find it a little tragic, like she won't allow herself the idea of having a permanent companion to ease the burden of her solitude. And on that note, let me get your opinion on last week's diagnosis-by-discussion: Do you think our narrator is depressed?
Gail: Depressed: definitely. Get a dog? Sure, but there are always things we could do and should do but don't, right? I got the feeling that taking the next step to go away for the year is the way the narrator is being pulled forward.
Meave: Ugh, yes, very good point. "Not doing things you should do" is probably on a Depression Evaluation Checklist in some doctor's office. If you don't mind, can we talk about that stationery store for a second? The narrator says she's been patronizing it since her girlhood, and she "likes to stop by nearly every week" just to be in there. So why is she so surprised by its having changed ownership and turned into a luggage shop? I thought it was such a strange scene; stores don't close or move overnight.
Gail: I actually liked the stationery store section. I relate to the love of stationery stores—something about all those pens and notebooks has always felt like the equivalent of a candy store for me. Now, between Covid and Amazon, I've stopped going.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Our narrator, a woman questioning her place in the world, wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home acts as a companion and interlocutor: traversing the streets around her house, and in parks, piazzas, museums, stores, and coffee bars, she feels less alone. We follow her to the pool she frequents, and to the train station that leads to her mother, who is mired in her own solitude after her husband’s untimely death. Among those who appear on this woman’s path are colleagues with whom she feels ill at ease, casual acquaintances, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. Until one day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will abruptly change.
Book description excerpted from publisher's summary and edited for length.
Meave: I used to work in the stationery section of a bookstore, maybe the most trafficked and least purchased-from area. People just loved to sample all the glitter pens.
Gail: Oh, I loved the pens. And the Post-Its. I'm also a sucker for fancy small cards with envelopes for the thank-you notes I now send by email.
Meave: You can get a lot of mileage out of a set of elegant blank cards. And now I miss having reasons to send thank-you notes. I used to get mine from discount stores, though; no romance there.
Gail: The narrator is nostalgic for her memory of going to the stationery store. It's funny to think about how as a client, certainly among many others, she feels attached to the family—largely based on the one incident when she lost her glasses. But her realization that the attachment may be one-sided also may be what stings when she discovers that the shop has closed and she didn't know. She is honest in her meandering when she notices the young couple buying suitcases and recognizes their joy.
Meave: That's a good point. It's a scene where she's forced to acknowledge that her perception of the world may not be entirely correct, which is almost like her getting out of her own head. And since we're on the subject of relationships and family, maybe it's time to address our narrator's relationship with her parents. Some of this made me very sad for her: She's afraid of the mother she remembers from childhood, she's angry at her long-dead father for not loving her enough, she remembers her mother seeming happy around other people and says, "My father and I were her cage." This made me think, OK, signora, it is absolutely time for therapy.
Gail: The narrator definitely has trouble moving on from her parents, but in a way, the book is her therapy. She quite candidly states how angry she is at her father for refusing to protect her from her mother's anger. The description of the lost opportunity when her father dies just when he was about to take her away to the theater is lovely.
Meave: It's funny you say "lovely" when she is castigating herself for feeling sorrier to have missed the trip than lost her father. But I like the idea that the book is her therapy; it may be depressing, but at least she's trying to express her feelings. I suppose her skewed perceptions from childhood are at least partly responsible for her skewed perceptions in adulthood, right?
Gail: There is not much that is stronger than our relationships with our parents. It affects everything going forward. I used to tell my kids that if I was perfect they would have nothing to complain about to their future therapists (kind of a joke…).
Meave: Kind of a joke, but not untrue! OK, just one more little detail and we can get to the big farewell. So, she says in "Nowhere" that she's "never stayed still, [she's] always been moving, that's all [she's] ever been doing," and when I read that I thought, What are you talking about? Where is this revelation coming from? Sure, she may feel "lost … astray, adrift … uprooted," but she's been in one place this whole time. Does she want to feel uprooted? Is that why she's taking this fellowship: to manifest her feeling "at sea" in her almost entirely unchanging life?
Gail: Yeah, there does seem to be a bit of a disconnect here. I guess her feeling about never staying still is connected to the feeling of not being grounded.
Meave: Oh, of course, that's such a good point, and this makes her feel like she's constantly in motion, however she interprets "motion."
Gail: She says several times she never married, and clearly looks with longing at her married friends and even at random couples and families she sees at the beach or in the scene around the villa; you can feel her regret at the path not taken. But I felt like Lahiri hammered this nail incessantly, and it just wasn't that interesting for the reader.
Meave: Strong agree. Lahiri's an effective enough writer, I feel like she got the narrator's regret across the first time. Maybe the repetition makes it more authentic, but as a reader I was out of patience. But then! Miracle of miracles! Our narrator is awarded a yearlong fellowship somewhere "on the other side of the border," and she packs up her life, gets on a train, and leaves. An enormous leap for her—how do you think it'll turn out? She is bringing to this fellowship all of herself she's shown us, and that person doesn't seem very … flexible. What do you think? Is this ending going to lead to a fresh start?
Gail: I think the ending is probably the one bit of hope for our melancholic narrator; she has forced herself to take the next step. In the first chapter titled "In My Head," she describes how hard it was for her as a child to participate in games at school where she was sure she would fall. But despite her anxiety, she would jump anyway, and in the end she never fell. This is a good description of how the narrator's life seems to work. Each time, she manages to move ahead despite her hesitations. So in the end she leaves her comfortable, imperfect world. She leaves her mother, her apartment, and her fantasy relationship behind and moves forward.
Meave: I agree, mostly—she does take the step, but taking the first big step is often the easiest part of moving forward. She still refuses the hospitality of the strangers on the train, and then instantly regrets it once they've disembarked. Talk about "wherever you go, there you are," right? Well. If it weren't clear already, I did not much care for our narrator, nor the novel. Do you have any final thoughts?
Gail: I think we've covered it the best we could. I would try Lahiri again, as I do have such good memories of her earlier works.
Meave: It sounds like she'll be writing in Italian for a while yet, but who knows, maybe the next novel will be about something fun, like a cheerful gelatiere and their various customers. Gail, this has been an experience. I am regretful we both had to spend so much time in a miserable person's head, but I'm glad you were able to see some beauty in the novel, and I appreciate your sharing it with me and everyone at camp. Thank you so much for taking the time to read Whereabouts and discuss it with me! And I hope your children have very little to talk about in therapy.
Since this is the end of our July series, it's time to vote in the poll below for your favorite of this month's books. As a reminder: each month you, the readers, are going to select your favorite of the two books read, and the winner will head to the end-of-summer finale, where the winner of that poll will receive an automatic berth in next winter's Tournament of Books. After voting, why not join us in the comments, for a treat.
Before I go, I'd like to express my gratitude to Andrew and Rosecrans for inviting me to Camp this year. It's been an experience, moderating comments these past few Tournaments, and I've become pretty fond of all of you book weirdos, with your brackets and your spreadsheets and your cacophony of opinions. Thanks for letting me join in your summer fun, too.
Now, to business: Come back next week, when we'll announce which of July's novels "won," and then your friend and mine, Andrew Womack, will lead the discussion of mongooses, mystics, and a magical train in the first half of Peaces (through chapter eight). See you then!
The Camp ToB 2021 Calendar
- June 2: No One Is Talking About This through part one
- June 9: No One Is Talking About This to the end
- June 16: Detransition, Baby through chapter four
- June 23: Detransition, Baby to the end
- June 30: Klara and the Sun through part three
- July 7: VACATION
- July 14: Klara and the Sun to the end
- July 21: Whereabouts through "At the Cash Register"
- July 28: Whereabouts to the end
- Aug. 4: Peaces through chapter eight
- Aug. 11: Peaces to the end
- Aug. 18: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch through page 137
- Aug. 25: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch to the end
- Sept. 1: Announce summer champion
You can find all our summer titles at our Camp ToB 2021 Bookshop list.