Camp ToB 2021

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Week Seven: Whereabouts

Moving as briskly along as the summer heat allows, this week we’re in Italy to discuss the first half of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts.

Meave Gallagher: Hi, everyone, and welcome back for the seventh 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.

I'll continue to facilitate the conversations this month, and Andrew will be your August guide. This week, we're talking about the first half of Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts, and our Activity Leader is Baltimore's Anita Pomerantz. Hi, Anita! Tell us about yourself.

Anita Pomerantz: Well, I've been more of a lurker than a participant in ToB. Until now. But it came to my attention when I joined a wonderful little group on Goodreads, and those readers told me there was a book tournament. A book tournament? Like March Madness, except books? YES! I absolutely love it. We just need to add gambling.

Meave: Be careful what you wish for! These people don't fool around.

Anita: I love reading, but sadly am too slow a reader for my ambitions. I usually read 50 books or so per year, but am disheartened that my TBR grows by four times that rate. My favorite books tend to fall into one of three categories: literary fiction, memoirs, or, oddly, books about mountain climbing.

Meave: Fifty books annually is nothing to sneeze at! But please explain the mountain climbing: fiction, nonfiction, instructional manuals?

Anita: I read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air when it was first published and was absolutely riveted. I am a long-distance runner, so I think a part of me was captivated by the sheer endurance required to climb Everest/Chomolungma. But unlike running, mountain climbing seems really super scary! At any rate, ever since I've been a little obsessed with books in this very narrow category, like outdoor thrillers. The books I read between everything else.

Meave: Your palate-cleanser books are about mountain climbing! That's so cool. I can see how they'd be a nice break from lit fic; even well-written, the subject matter seems pretty different from troubled families or war orphans. And it's always good to diversify your reading material, right?

Anita: I love thinking about, learning about, and selecting books almost as much as actually reading them.

Meave: Same! I love a good long to-be-read list, recommendations from friends, photos of books from people's Instagrams. What else should we know about you besides your fascinating taste in reading material?

Anita: I am a new empty-nester, married for 30 years with two adult sons, and I live in a high-rise in the heart of downtown Baltimore (it's better than it sounds). After reading, my next favorite pastime is following baseball, where I stay loyal to my New York roots.

Meave: I'm sure no one here would cast aspersions on Baltimore. Are congratulations in order for the empty nest? A friend of mine is sending his only child off to college this fall, and he has been suffering anticipatory empty-nester sadness for months already.

Anita: There is the empty nest when you send your youngest child to college, and that's bittersweet. But mine is really empty, with both kids out of the house and totally self-sufficient. That's liberating!!

Meave: Well then, congratulations to you on the freedom and commendable child-raising!

Today we're talking about the first half of Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts, which is narrated by an unnamed woman in her forties, living implacably alone in an unidentified but pretty clearly Italian city. She's between romantic partners, unhappy with her job, unhappy with a lot about her life, really. One of the big notable things about the novel is that Lahiri originally wrote it in Italian, and then translated it into English herself. Anita, how much of Lahiri's work had you read before Whereabouts? Did you read her first Italian-first work, the memoir In Other Words, which Ann Goldstein translated?

Anita: So I've read The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland. Not sure where my attention was in 2015, but your mention of In Other Words is the first I've even heard of it. Unfortunately.

Meave: I hadn't heard of In Other Words before all the press about Whereabouts, either. I've also read most of Lahiri's English-first works and remember liking them fine. I was not at all aware of her romance with a Romance language (gross, sorry) that led her here, so this was all a surprise to me, too. What were you expecting when you opened the book?

Anita: In terms of expectations, I have always found Lahiri to be evocative, empathetic, and a wonderful writer of telling details (my favorite authors are all very good at the latter). I was hoping for more like The Namesake and less like The Lowland, but my hopes on that front weren't quite realized.

Meave: Oh no? How's that?

Whereabouts, Baltimore. Credit: Anita Pomerantz.

Anita: I just fell in love with The Namesake—the short-story format, the wonderful details about the immigrant experience and Indian traditions—whereas The Lowland was slow and lacked suspense. That said, I still liked it enough to give it four stars on Goodreads, but The Namesake is a book I loved.

Meave: Do you read much work in translation? I studied comparative literature and French as an undergrad, but I don't read many foreign-language novels these days, and I don't even want to talk about my French.

Anita: I don't want to talk about my French either. I took four years of French in high school, and <sarcasm>I was so good at it</sarcasm> that I switched to Spanish in college rather than even attempt to keep studying it. So languages are not my forte.

Meave: There was a time when I thought they were mine, but now I think I just like conjugation and declension tables. What was the last work in translation you read? Mine was Maria Dahvana Headley's Beowulf (on Rosecrans's recommendation), and I loved it. It's so beautiful and funny and upsetting and weird, I could read it again and again.

Anita: In the past year, I've read two books in translation, but the last one I read was very recent: When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut, translated by Nathan West. It was fascinating, and kudos to the translator, because it had a lot of scientific concepts which had to have been difficult to handle. One of my very favorite books is The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which is also translated.

Meave: OK, When We Cease to Understand the World sounds like total ToB bait; I must read it. Was its being originally written in Spanish at all a draw for you?

Anita: I really don't consider whether a book is translated or not when I decide to pick up a novel. Frankly, I think the media has overblown the fact that Whereabouts is translated from a language that isn't the author's first. It's an interesting factoid, but I don't think it really makes much difference to the quality of the book in and of itself. But it does provide more opportunity for things to go wrong, as the original text could be subpar, or perhaps the translation is simply poor.

Meave: Look at you casually dismissing the novel's big hook. I love it! Allow me one moment of sincerity to recommend a novel with what sounds like a translational gimmick that totally works: HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. After writing it in Dutch, Heuvelt worked with his English translator, Nancy Forest-Flier, to revise essentially the entire novel for an English-speaking (really, US) audience. I'm not usually into horror, but their work was very, um, effective.

Anita: That sounds intriguing to say the least. I'll need to check it out!

Meave: Just be warned, it is scary and gross! And also very well done. You're right, though; you can always get a bad translation, or just not enjoy the book, period. For example, as much as I enjoyed, say, Masako Togawa's The Master Key, I was always aware that this is a translation. I'm getting that same feeling from Whereabouts, too, which I didn't expect from Lahiri based on her English-first works. I've only read a little Italian—some Eco, some Calvino, some Ferrante—but I didn't feel so far removed from any of their works as I have with Whereabouts.

Anita: I'm in the same boat as you, since I've only read Calvino and Ferrante (and wasn't terribly wild about either), so I can't really make a good comparison to other Italian works.

Meave: I'm wondering about how Lahiri's choice to write her novel in Italian and then translate it serves the text. Do you think it's reinforcing the narrator's feelings of isolation and distance from the world, from her own life?

Anita: Whereabouts is a bit odd in how the "place" part of the book is so generic. It's Italy, I suppose, but there's nothing about the book that really is unique to Italy. It feels like it could be taking place anywhere. I agree that there's something about the writing that is distancing, but I also think it feels timeless. It's really not about the setting at all; the focus is squarely on the unnamed protagonist.

Meave: Which is a bit of a gamble, right? You really have to want to go where this woman is taking you, wherever that is.

Anita: Honestly, I think the lack of names, whether it be geographical, attractions, stores, or people, creates all the distance. It is working for me so far in the sense I really feel like I know this character well. What's not working so well is the lack of plot; seriously, nothing is happening.

 

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: Heller McAlpin says in a review for NPR that Whereabouts "demands patience," which I'm finding to be true—it is slow going.

Anita: I have a very, very high tolerance for books with terrific character development and not a lot of plot, but I think you need a little more action than this book has provided thus far.

Meave: And what kind of character development are we getting? Our narrator seems determined to spoil anything she enjoys: The pool she loves to swim in becomes a swamp of other women's misery; getting her nails done reminds her of how her face "has always disappointed" her; a stranger appears at her favorite museum and dares to take up space on a bench. What do you think about Sigrid Nunez positing that she is clinically depressed? She seems plenty depressed to me.

Anita: I think that diagnosis is on point. The entire text alludes to her depression, from the first chapter where she views a memorial plaque that makes her feel "less alive," to the spring season which only holds bad memories, to her hypochondriacal thoughts that drive her to the doctor.

Meave: Yeah, that sort of relentless negativity, the ruminating on disappointment and dissatisfaction and death, reminds me of how my own mind gets when my medications stop working and my depression comes creeping back. I love your interpretation of why she visits the doctor. Not buying her "I'm falling apart at age 46" thing, eh?

Anita: Married to a doctor, so, no…

Meave: L O L. Anita!

Anita: I think her fixation on her health is right in line with the rest of her ruminations. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the book for me thus far is how the protagonist is constantly making up stories about other people and projecting her own needs, fears, and thoughts onto them. The way the book is written, you almost think she is accurately describing others, but if you read carefully, you realize that she imputes meaning to everyone else's actions with almost no information regarding their intent. Most of her observations are negative, but also unfounded.

Meave: Our narrator is quite unreliable. I completely agree, especially if we're decided that she's depressed; depression can act as a rather ugly lens through which you see the world.

Anita: Beyond the fact that the narrator seems depressed, I think we need to consider her stage of life, especially her age: mid-forties. As an empty-nester, I could relate to the protagonist's world view. Lahiri (53) is very close in age to me (54), and I think she should have made the narrator in her early- to mid-50s. After a certain age, I do think there's a different feeling to life that is encapsulated by the narrator. At this stage of life, many of the most exciting developments have already happened. Or they have not happened, and there's little to no chance they will.

Meave: I will take your word for it; that sounds entirely reasonable. I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't even consider how a reader's age might affect their perception of the novel, let alone how the narrator's might affect her point of view. Tell me, after 50, is it easier or does it feel more natural to live in the moment?

Anita: There's less looking forward with anticipation and more examining and speculating about what's going on at the moment. I think I like the book so far because although I'm a much, much happier person, I feel a lot of empathy for the narrator. I can understand why she thinks the way she does.

Meave: I'd agree that she does not look forward to much besides the theater season, but she does get stuck in the past pretty frequently, too: remembering her father dying before they could see a play, or her mother taking her to swimming lessons, or the mysterious terrible thing that ruined the entire season of spring, forever. Maybe that's the depression talking, though? I feel like I've been cataloging my regrets since I was a kid; perhaps she hasn't outgrown that miserable habit?

Anita: I feel like after 50 you are just as prone to hold onto the past, especially if there has been trauma, but what's different to me is that you don't think nearly as much about the future. I feel much more present in the day-to-day now than I ever have before. There's less anxiety about what's to come, but also less anticipation and excitement. That could just be me! I find a lot more joy in the small things happening right now.

Meave: That observation is very beautiful and makes me wish our narrator could have a little of what you've got. But then, that is not the novel Lahiri wrote. You were saying earlier that "the 'place'" part of the book is so generic," and I thought that was funny because all the chapters are locations—"At the Trattoria," "In the Bookstore," "On the Couch,"—that are both hyper-specific to the narrator's life and, as Lahiri told NPR, deliberately unnamed and vague. How much of this genericness would you say applies to the narrator, too? I guess I'm wondering why one would go to such linguistic efforts for a little novel about an anywoman in an anytown? Is this even supposed to be an "Italian" novel, or is that a misinterpretation of what Lahiri is trying to do?

Anita: These are great questions. A part of me really believes that the idea of writing in Italian was either a stimulating personal challenge for the author and/or a public relations angle (yes, I have an MBA in marketing and am a little cynical).

Meave: Fair enough! I can appreciate the novel being a personal challenge or a labor of love, but then I want to know why she didn't go ahead and fully try to write an "Italian" novel, instead of this—mishmash of cultures and styles? It's beginning to seem like even talking too much about the translation aspect of Whereabouts is a waste of time.

Anita: My point exactly. Yet every review mentions and discusses it as though it's super important. Other than a few words—trattoria, piazza—and the fact the whole place shut down in August, there was nothing else about the book that screamed Italy to me. I think this woman, these places, are universal. I could relate to everywhere she went and the mundane nature of her life.

Meave: Wait, do you think Lahiri is using this vagueness to assert that the narrator's experience of being a middle-aged, middle-class woman is universal? I mean, not everyone can even afford to live alone, never mind buy season tickets to the theater or get twice-monthly manicures. Is it the mundanity that's universal? I could see that.

Anita: No, I don't think the character is universal. But the way the author lived in her own head as she goes about her day seems universal to me. When you are alone, doing errands, do you think? What do you think about?

Meave: You know, it's been so long since I ran an errand alone, it's hard to remember my "running errands" internal monologue.

Anita: I feel like younger people might think about other big things coming up in their life, but after the major milestones of life have been already achieved, I do find myself speculating about why a random person in a supermarket has filled their cart with just mayonnaise and Diet Coke.

Meave: I'd like to think I'd notice a shopping cart filled with mayo and Diet Coke! I wonder what our narrator would say about it.

Anita: You do make a good point about this possibly being a middle class thing! Perhaps this kind of mental speculation is only accessible to those without major worries (illness, finances, work, etc.).

Meave: Quite. And this brings us to the class analysis portion of the discussion. As Emma Goldman wrote in her 1906 treatise "The Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation," "The self-supporting or economically free woman… surpasses her sister of past generations in knowledge of the world and human nature; and it is because of that that she feels deeply the lack of life's essence," which does seem apt for our middle-class narrator here. (Further reading on the subject is encouraged.)

Moving on, in that NPR interview, Lahiri said about her narrator, "I think the book is about her relationship with her [the narrator's] solitude. And I think it puts into focus for me the reality… that we all have to have and have to acknowledge a relationship with our solitude." Do you have a relationship with your solitude?

Anita: I've been married over 30 years, live in a high-rise building with lots of other people and in an urban setting. For me, solitude is a bit of a blessing. I tend to actively seek it out: time for running or time for reading. However, I will admit that the second the pandemic hit, I ran out and bought a puppy, so maybe I don't like it quite as much as I think!

Meave: A puppy! OK, I must interrupt our conversation to inquire after this puppy.

Anita: My little apricot cockapoo, Remy! Extremely outgoing and friendly, he loves playing with a ball in the kiddie pool at the dog park. No kiddie pool? Any mud puddle will do. He wants to sit in my lap 24/7, and I will remark that it is very hard to do work with a dog's head resting on your arm.

Remy after a kiddie-pool session. Credit: Anita Pomerantz.

Meave: Remy is a glorious creature and I would be honored to be in his muddy presence. Look at his face, it is a work of art. But back to our topic at hand: solitude. For me, when I'm solitary, it's usually just time between people—or "person" during pandemic times, if you don't count animal company. It's never that long and I don't mind it. Conversely, the narrator says, "Solitude: It's become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it's a condition I try to perfect." Then she goes on: "And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well." Do you think she's lonely? Or maybe so resigned to being alone that she's almost abandoned the idea that her life could change?

Anita: I feel that the solitude the author may be referring to is the fact that at the end of the day, we are alone in our experiences. Our past is ours alone, and only we really know how it shaped our internal thoughts, feelings, and happiness. We own our decisions. When we die, we must face the fact that even when surrounded with love, the experience is solitary. So, when Lahiri says we have to acknowledge a relationship with our solitude, maybe she means the essential fact that ultimately, we are alone inside our own heads. I think that's the type of solitude the protagonist refers to when she says it plagues her.

Meave: No no no, the worst kind of solitude. In that case, I'd like to revise my answer to: I hate to be alone with my thoughts, if I could read a book in the shower I would, and I'd like to die in the middle of a conversation with my husband.

Anita: OK, I really see now why our protagonist (and maybe this book) isn't your cup of tea!

Meave: I love how different our experiences of this book have been so far. You're comfortable with your own solitary thoughts, our narrator seems to resent hers, and I try to avoid facing mine as much as possible. Maybe Whereabouts is some kind of psychological test about self-acceptance, which, if so, you're totally passing. But our narrator isn't miserable all the time, right?

Anita: She does have some tiny little pleasures: the touch of the manicurist, anticipation of the theater, the reassurance of the gentleman at the hotel, the delicious sandwich she eats in the sun of the park.

Meave: Oh, I miss a delicious sandwich in the sun in the park. San Francisco, Sept. 2008: a lousy time to be young and out of work; a great time for park sandwiches. "In August" finds her deriving a little joy in buying things from her neighbor's rummage sale, stuff she acknowledges is junk but the acquisition and use of which also seems to give her genuine pleasure. She doesn't even let seeing that neighbor throw the unsold items into a dumpster ruin it for her. What do you make of that?

Anita: I think these objects that her neighbor is selling are just another foil for her projections and imagination. She fantasizes about the girl in the portrait's life and transports herself to another time reading the outdated magazine. But the interesting point of the chapter to me is that her neighbor takes a great leap and throws away everything to start life anew with his girlfriend.

Meave: I interpreted that scene much more literally: The guy got sick of selling his family junk to just one neighbor, and decided he'd rather bin it all and go to the beach. What about it said "great leap" to you?

Anita: Well, he speaks about all the history of these items. He speaks nostalgically about the puzzles he put together, the books he read, the meals he ate out of the pots. I felt he was tied to these things. But he decided to look forward and live his life with passion with his girlfriend, not tied down by his junk, which could really be construed as his past. Our narrator is tied down by her past for sure, and she's definitely not going to throw caution to the wind. It's an important contrast, I think.

Meave: Dump the past, start new—something our narrator cannot or will not do. So what do you see happening in the second half? Are you looking forward to it? I can't say I'm on tenterhooks waiting to see what small pleasure our narrator will deny or spoil for herself next. Do you think this will be her year? Or is what we've seen what we'll get?

Anita: Unlike her neighbor, I do not believe our protagonist is willing to throw away all of her own baggage (the memories of the overbearing mother, the loss of her father, the failed relationship) in order to find love and companionship. Rather, like the objects the neighbor discarded and she claimed, she will continue to hang on to her solitude, her aloneness. The narrative arc just doesn't seem to suggest an out.

Meave: No, so far I'm expecting what she's expecting: more of the same. A vaguely Italian-flavored rut.

Anita: But more importantly, I do think she believes her current state is one of much improvement over her past. Better to be alone than with an overprotective, domineering mother. Better to be alone than be like her friend with the husband who monopolizes the conversation. Better to be alone than to have big public fights with your spouse about taking a walk. Better to be alone than be with a needy, cheating boyfriend. So, I'm not terribly hopeful for our narrator.

Meave: It sounds like you're saying our narrator has trouble living between extremes; accepting gray areas is hard to learn at any age. I wonder if her happy, or acceptable medium is her plodding, unchanging, solitary life.

Anita: In many ways, I am looking forward to finding out if I'm wrong. For a book with such a minimal plot and such a depressed narrator, I like being this close to a character. I feel like I know her and wish I could reach out through the pages and show her another way to be.

Meave: Anita, you're the one of the most generous readers I've had the pleasure of discussing a book with. Thank you so much for joining us! Everyone else, we'll meet you in the comments and then back here next week for the rest of Whereabouts, when it'll also be time to vote to send your favorite of July's books to the final poll.

 

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.

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