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Unaccustomed Earth

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These eight stories by beloved and bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand, as they explore the secrets at the heart of family life. Here they enter the worlds of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. Rich with the signature gifts that have established Jhumpa Lahiri as one of our most essential writers, Unaccustomed Earth exquisitely renders the most intricate workings of the heart and mind.

ISBN-13: 9780307278258

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 04-07-2009

Pages: 352

Product Dimensions: 5.27(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.89(d)

Age Range: 16 - 18 Years

Series: Vintage Contemporaries

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of four works of fiction: Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland; and a work of nonfiction, In Other Words. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; the PEN/Hemingway Award; the PEN/Malamud Award; the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; the Premio Gregor von Rezzori; the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; a 2014 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama; and the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia, for In altre parole.

Read an Excerpt

Unaccustomed EarthAfter her mother’s death, Ruma’s father retired from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for many decades and began traveling in Europe, a continent he’d never seen. In the past year he had visited France, Holland, and most recently Italy. They were package tours, traveling in the company of strangers, riding by bus through the countryside, each meal and museum and hotel prearranged. He was gone for two, three, sometimes four weeks at a time. When he was away Ruma did not hear from him. Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadn’t been a plane crash anywhere in the world.Occasionally a postcard would arrive in Seattle, where Ruma and Adam and their son Akash lived. The postcards showed the facades of churches, stone fountains, crowded piazzas, terra-cotta rooftops mellowed by late afternoon sun. Nearly fifteen years had passed since Ruma’s only European adventure, a month-long EuroRail holiday she’d taken with two girlfriends after college, with money saved up from her salary as a para- legal. She’d slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now. Her father wrote succinct, impersonal accounts of the things he had seen and done: “Yesterday the Uffizi Gallery. Today a walk to the other side of the Arno. A trip to Siena scheduled tomorrow.” Occasionally there was a sentence about the weather. But there was never a sense of her father’s presence in those places. Ruma was reminded of the telegrams her parents used to send to their relatives long ago, after visiting Calcutta and safely arriving back in Pennsylvania.The postcards were the first pieces of mail Ruma had received from her father. In her thirty-eight years he’d never had any reason to write to her. It was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a position to receive mail on his end. Her father’s penmanship was small, precise, slightly feminine; her mother’s had been a jumble of capital and lowercase, as though she’d learned to make only one version of each letter. The cards were addressed to Ruma; her father never included Adam’s name, or mentioned Akash. It was only in his closing that he acknowledged any personal connection between them. “Be happy, love Baba,” he signed them, as if the attainment of happiness were as simple as that.In August her father would be going away again, to Prague. But first he was coming to spend a week with Ruma and see the house she and Adam had bought on the Eastside of Seattle. They’d moved from Brooklyn in the spring, for Adam’s job. It was her father who suggested the visit, calling Ruma as she was making dinner in her new kitchen, surprising her. After her mother’s death it was Ruma who assumed the duty of speaking to her father every evening, asking how his day had gone. The calls were less frequent now, normally once a week on Sunday afternoons. “You’re always welcome here, Baba,” she’d told her father on the phone. “You know you don’t have to ask.” Her mother would not have asked. “We’re coming to see you in July,” she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.Adam would be away that week, on another business trip. He worked for a hedge fund and since the move had yet to spend two consecutive weeks at home. Tagging along with him wasn’t an option. He never went anywhere interesting—usually towns in the Northwest or Canada where there was nothing special for her and Akash to do. In a few months, Adam assured her, the trips would diminish. He hated stranding Ruma with Akash so often, he said, especially now that she was pregnant again. He encouraged her to hire a babysitter, even a live-in if that would be helpful. But Ruma knew no one in Seattle, and the prospect of finding someone to care for her child in a strange place seemed more daunting than looking after him on her own. It was just a matter of getting through the summer—in September, Akash would start at a preschool. Besides, Ruma wasn’t working and couldn’t justify paying for something she now had the freedom to do.In New York, after Akash was born, she’d negotiated a part-time schedule at her law firm, spending Thursdays and Fridays at home in Park Slope, and this had seemed like the perfect balance. The firm had been tolerant at first, but it had not been so easy, dealing with her mother’s death just as an important case was about to go to trial. She had died on the operating table, of heart failure; anesthesia for routine gallstone surgery had triggered anaphylactic shock.After the two weeks Ruma received for bereavement, she couldn’t face going back. Overseeing her clients’ futures, preparing their wills and refinancing their mortgages, felt ridiculous to her, and all she wanted was to stay home with Akash, not just Thursdays and Fridays but every day. And then, miraculously, Adam’s new job came through, with a salary generous enough for her to give notice. It was the house that was her work now: leafing through the piles of catalogues that came in the mail, marking them with Post-its, ordering sheets covered with dragons for Akash’s room.“Perfect,” Adam said, when Ruma told him about her father’s visit. “He’ll be able to help you out while I’m gone.” But Ruma disagreed. It was her mother who would have been the helpful one, taking over the kitchen, singing songs to Akash and teaching him Bengali nursery rhymes, throwing loads of laundry into the machine. Ruma had never spent a week alone with her father. When her parents visited her in Brooklyn, after Akash was born, her father claimed an armchair in the living room, quietly combing through the Times, occasionally tucking a finger under the baby’s chin but behaving as if he were waiting for the time to pass.Her father lived alone now, made his own meals. She could not picture his surroundings when they spoke on the phone. He’d moved into a one-bedroom condominium in a part of Pennsylvania Ruma did not know well. He had pared down his possessions and sold the house where Ruma and her younger brother Romi had spent their childhood, informing them only after he and the buyer went into contract. It hadn’t made a difference to Romi, who’d been living in New Zealand for the past two years, working on the crew of a German documentary filmmaker. Ruma knew that the house, with the rooms her mother had decorated and the bed in which she liked to sit up doing crossword puzzles and the stove on which she’d cooked, was too big for her father now. Still, the news had been shocking, wiping out her mother’s presence just as the surgeon had.She knew her father did not need taking care of, and yet this very fact caused her to feel guilty; in India, there would have been no question of his not moving in with her. Her father had never mentioned the possibility, and after her mother’s death it hadn’t been feasible; their old apartment was too small. But in Seattle there were rooms to spare, rooms that stood empty and without purpose.Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to. It would mean an end to the family she’d created on her own: herself and Adam and Akash, and the second child that would come in January, conceived just before the move. She couldn’t imagine tending to her father as her mother had, serving the meals her mother used to prepare. Still, not offering him a place in her home made her feel worse. It was a dilemma Adam didn’t understand. Whenever she brought up the issue, he pointed out the obvious, that she already had a small child to care for, another on the way. He reminded her that her father was in good health for his age, content where he was. But he didn’t object to the idea of her father living with them. His willingness was meant kindly, generously, an example of why she loved Adam, and yet it worried her. Did it not make a difference to him? She knew he was trying to help, but at the same time she sensed that his patience was wearing thin. By allowing her to leave her job, splurging on a beautiful house, agreeing to having a second baby, Adam was doing everything in his power to make Ruma happy. But nothing was making her happy; recently, in the course of conversation, he’d pointed that out, too.How freeing it was, these days, to travel alone, with only a single suitcase to check. He had never visited the Pacific Northwest, never appreciated the staggering breadth of his adopted land. He had flown across America only once before, the time his wife booked tickets to Calcutta on Royal Thai Airlines, via Los Angeles, rather than traveling east as they normally did. That journey was endless, four seats, he still remembered, among the smokers at the very back of the plane. None of them had the energy to visit any sights in Bangkok during their layover, sleeping instead in the hotel provided by the airline. His wife, who had been most excited to see the Floating Market, slept even through dinner, for he remembered a meal in the hotel with only Romi and Ruma, in a solarium overlooking a garden, tasting the spiciest food he’d ever had in his life as mosquitoes swarmed angrily behind his children’s faces. No matter how they went, those trips to India were always epic, and he still recalled the anxiety they provoked in him, having to pack so much luggage and getting it all to the airport, keeping documents in order and ferrying his family safely so many thousands of miles. But his wife had lived for these journeys, and until both his parents died, a part of him lived for them, too. And so they’d gone in spite of the expense, in spite of the sadness and shame he felt each time he returned to Calcutta, in spite of the fact that the older his children grew, the less they wanted to go.

Reading Group Guide

"Stunning. . . . Gorgeous. . . . Never before has Lahiri mined so perfectly the secrets of the human heart."

USA Today

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Unaccustomed Earth, a dazzling collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri.


1. Discuss the relevance of the epigraph from Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" not just to the title story but also to the collection as a whole. In which stories do the children successfully "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth"? Why do others find themselves unable to establish roots? How do their feelings of restlessness and insecurity stem from growing up in two cultures? What other more universal problems do they experience? In what ways does their lack of attachment to a place or culture reflect a more general trend in society?

2. In "Unaccustomed Earth," what underlies the tension in the relationship between Ruma and her father as the story opens? What aspects of the family's history inhibit their ability to communicate with each other? How do their memories of Ruma's mother and the life she led influence the paths they choose for the next stages in their lives? Do you feel more sympathy for either character's point of view?

3. In what ways does "Hell-Heaven" echo the themes explored in "Unaccustomed Earth"? How does the way the story unfolds add to its power and its poignancy? What parallels are there between the narrator's mother's "crush" on Pranab and her own infatuation with him and Deborah?

4. What is the significance of the title "A Choice of Accommodations"? What does it imply about Amit and Megan's marriage? Why do you think Lahiri chose to set the story at Amit's old prep school? Do you think the events of the weekend bring Amit a better sense of who he is, what he wants and needs from Megan, and his role as a husband and father? Will the weekend change anything for Amit and Megan and their relationship?

5. "Only Goodness" traces the impact of parental expectations on a sister and brother. Why did Sudha and Rahul develop in such different ways? Discuss such factors as the circumstances surrounding their births and earliest years; the obligations Sudha takes on both as the "perfect daughter" and in response to the combination of love, envy, and resentment Rahul's attitudes and behavior arouse in her; and the siblings' awareness of and reactions to the "perplexing fact of [their] parents' marriage" [p. 137]. Compare and contrast the siblings' choice of partners. What attracts Sudha to Roger, and Rahul to Elena?

6. Why does Paul, the American graduate student in "Nobody's Business," find his roommate, Sang, the recipient of frequent marriage proposals, so intriguing? Does Paul really want to help Sang, or does he get involved in her relationship with Farouk for more selfish reasons? Why do you think Lahiri titled this story "Nobody's Business"—and what does the title mean to you?

7. In "Once in a Lifetime," Hema addresses Kaushik directly as she recalls the time they spent together as teenagers. How does this twist on the first-person narration change your experience as a reader? Does it establish a greater intimacy between you and the narrator? Does it have an effect on the flow of the narrative? On the way Hema presents her memories? Is it comparable, for example, to reading a private letter or diary? Are the same things true of Kaushik's narrative in "Year's End"?

8. In an interview with Bookforum, Lahiri, whose parents immigrated to London and then to the United States, said, "My parents befriended people simply for the fact that they were like them on the surface; they were Bengali, and that made their circle incredibly vast. There is this de facto assumption that they're going to get along, and often that cultural glue holds them, but there were also these vast differences. My own circle of friends is much more homogenous, because most of my friends went to college—Ivy League or some other fine institution—and vote a certain way." How is this mirrored by the friendship between the two sets of parents in "Once in a Lifetime," who are close friends despite the differences in their backgrounds? Why does this attachment deteriorate when the Choudhuri family returns from India? Which of their habits or attitudes do Hema's parents find particularly reprehensible and why? What is the significance of Kaushik's breaking his family's silence and telling Hema about his mother's illness?

9. How would you describe the tone and style of Kaushik's account of his father's remarriage in "Year's End"? Does his conversation with his father [pp. 253-255] reveal similarities between them? Why does Kaushik say, "I didn't know which was worse-the idea of my father remarrying for love, or of his actively seeking out a stranger for companionship" [p. 255]? Does the time he spends with his father's new family offer an alternate, more complex, explanation for his father's decision?

10. What role do his stepsisters play in Kaushik's willingness to accept his father's marriage? Why is he so outraged by their fascination with the pictures of his mother? He later reflects, "in their silence they continued both to protect and to punish me" [p. 293]. In what ways does their silence and the reasons for it mirror Kaushik's own behavior, both here and in "Once in a Lifetime"?

11. How do "Once in a Lifetime" and "Year's End" set the stage for "Going Ashore," the final story in the trilogy? What traces of their younger selves are visible in both Hema and Kaushik? In what ways do the paths they've chosen reflect or oppose the journeys their parents made as immigrants?

12. Why does Hema find the idea of an arranged marriage appealing? How has her affair with Julian affected her ideas about romantic love? What does her description of her relationship with Navin [pp. 296-298] reveal about what she thinks she wants and needs in a relationship? What role do her memories of her parents' marriage play in her vision of married life?

13. What motivates Kaushik's decision to become a photojournalist? In what ways does the peripatetic life of a photojournalist suit his idea of himself? In addition to the many moves his family made, what other experiences make him grow up to be an outsider, "away from the private detritus of life" [p. 309]?

14. What does the reunion in Rome reveal about the ties that bind Hema and Kaushik despite their many years of separation? What does it illustrate about their attempts to escape from the past and their parents' way of life? What do they come to realize about themselves and the plans they have made as the intimacy between them escalates? Why does Lahiri introduce Hema's voice as the narrator of the final pages?

15. In what ways does "Going Ashore" bring together the themes threaded through the earlier stories? What does the ending demonstrate about realities of trying to find a home in the world?

16. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth offer a moving, highly original perspective on the clash between family and cultural traditions and the search for individual identity. How does the sense of displacement felt by the older, immigrant generation affect their American-born children? What accommodations do the children make to their parents' way of life? In trying to fit in with their American friends, do they sacrifice their connections to their heritage? In what ways are the challenges they face more complex than those of their parents?

17. Several stories feature marriages between an Indian-American and an American-and in once case, English-spouse. What characteristics do these mixed marriages share? In what ways does becoming parents themselves bring up (or renew) questions about cultural identity? What emotions arise as they contemplate the differences between the families they're creating and those in which they grew up?

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Splendid . . . The fact that America is still a place where the rest of the world comes to reinvent itself–accepting with excitement and anxiety the necessity of leaving behind the constrictions and comforts of distant customs–is the underlying theme of Jhumpa Lahiri’s sensitive new collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. . . . .
Lahiri’s epigraph . . . from ‘The Custom-House,’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne, [is] an apt, rich metaphor for the transformations Lahiri oversees in these pages, in which two generations of Bengali immigrants to America–the newcomers and their hyphenated children–struggle to build normal, secure lives. . . . .
Except for their names, ‘Hema and Kaushik’ [the title characters of the final trilogy of stories] could evoke any American’s ’70s childhood, any American’s bittersweet acceptance of the compromises of adulthood. The generational conflicts Lahiri depicts cut across national lines; the waves of admiration, competition and criticism that flow between their two families could occur between Smiths and Taylors in any suburban town; and the fight for connection and control between Hema and Kaushik–as children and as adults–replays the tussle that has gone on ever since men and women lived in caves.
Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration. Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.”

–Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters tend to be immigrants from India and their American-reared children, exiles who straddle two countries, two cultures, and belong to neither: too used to freedom to accept the rituals and conventions of home, and yet too steeped in tradition to embrace American mores fully. . . . Ms. Lahiri writes about these people in Unaccustomed Earth with an intimate knowledge of their conflicted hearts, using her lapidary eye for detail to conjure their daily lives with extraordinary precision . . . A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories: a reminder of Ms. Lahiri’s appreciation of the wages of time and mortality and her understanding too of the missed connections that plague her husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends. [Lahiri] deftly explicates the emotional arithmetic of her characters’ families . . . showing how some of the children learn to sidestep, even defy, their parents’ wishes. But she also shows how haunted they remain by the burden of their families’ dreams and their awareness of their role in the generational process of Americanization. . . The last three overlapping tales tell a single story about a Bengali-American girl and a Bengali-American boy, whose crisscrossing lives make up a poignant ballad of love and loss and death. They embark on a passionate affair that concludes not with a fairy-tale happy ending but with a denouement that speaks of missed opportunities and avoidable grief. . . . an ending that possesses the elegiac and haunting power of tragedy–a testament to Lahiri’s emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer.”

–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Stunning. [Lahiri] delves deeply and richly into the lives of immigrants. [But though] immigrants may be the stories’ protagonists, their doubts, insecurities, losses and heartbreaks belong to all of us. Never before has Lahiri mined so perfectly the secrets of the human heart. . . . In part, Lahiri’s gift to the reader is gorgeous prose that bestows greatness on life’s mundane events and activities. But it is her exploration of lost love and lost loved ones that gives her stories an emotional exactitude few writers could ever hope to match.”

–Carol Memmott, USA Today

“Shimmering . . . The literary prize committees should once again take note . . . To read [Unaccustomed Earth] and only take away an experience of cultural tourism would be akin to reading Dante only to retain how medieval Italians slurped their spaghetti. Lahiri’s fiction delves deep into the universal theme of isolation. . . . Lahiri is a lush writer bringing to life worlds through a pile-up of detail. But somehow all that richness electrifyingly evokes the void. . . . It’s customary when reviewing short story collections to adopt a ‘one from column A, two from column B’ kind of structure–you know, the title story always gets a ritual nod, followed by a run-down of which stories are the strongest, which have just been included for filler. But another stereotype-confounding aspect of Lahiri’s writing is that there aren’t any weak stories here: every one seems like the best, the most vivid, until you read the next one. . . . Lahiri ingeniously reworks the situation of characters subsisting at point zero, of being stripped down like Lear on the heath. [Unaccustomed Earth] certainly makes a contribution to the literature of immigration, but it also takes its rightful place with modernist tales from whatever culture in which characters find themselves doomed to try and fail to only connect.”

–Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air”

“Profound . . . Powerful . . . Haunting . . . Lahiri’s prose here is deceptively simple, its mechanics invisible, as she enters into her characters’ innermost journeys. [In the title story,] the moment-to-moment rendering of Ruma’s vulnerability and her father’s rising panic at all that he’s keeping secret sweeps the reader into a compelling emotional landscape. . . . Lahiri invests [her characters] with great depth. [She is] a writer working at the height of her powers.”

–Lisa Fugard, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Peripatetic, sweeping stories–Lahiri’s best yet–which move from Boston to Bombay and back again to evoke intricate topologies of emotion and characters who often feel more at home abroad. [They] possess the gravitational pull of short novels. . . . The final three stories, a trilogy in which an educated, thoroughly American girl’s choice of an arranged marriage over romantic love (a decision Lahiri deftly makes relatable) has cataclysmic repercussions, form the rhapsodic culmination to the collection. Lahiri, a master storyteller–who, along with Alice Munro, has arguably done more to reinvigorate the once-moribund form than any other contemporary English-language writer–comes full circle with this book, imbued as it is with a sense of passage, of life and death and rebirth.”

–Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“Five of five stars. . . . Commanding and seamless . . . There might not be a better book of fiction by an American writer published this year. . . . Extraordinary . . . The long, absorbing ‘Unaccustomed Earth,’ the title story [deals with] familiar themes [for Lahiri]: the alienation that Indian immigrant parents feel toward their American-reared children and the guilt those children feel as they assimilate into the melting pot of the U.S. But as she proved in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Lahiri writes so compellingly about these conflicts and pays such careful attention to the most emotionally telling of details that each story feels freshly minted. . . . The range of human experiences [Lahiri] chronicles is epic, again and again. [‘Hell-Heaven’ is] a universal story of yearning and unrequited desire, rooted so specifically and powerfully in a sense of time and place that we feel as if we are living right alongside the characters . . . For all that’s comfortingly familiar about Unaccustomed Earth, though, one of its chief pleasures is that it shows Lahiri stretching in entirely new directions. In ‘A Choice of Accommodations,’ for instance, the author serves up a slice of Updike-ian Americana while managing to put her own distinct twist on the proceedings. . . . ‘Only Goodness,’ arguably the strongest story in the collection, gets under your skin like nothing Lahiri has written before. The first five stories are varied and accomplished [and the final three] are gripping and affecting . . . Whereas so many story collections feel like uneven grab-bags, Unaccustomed Earth seems to have poured forth from the author’s pen in one swoop, and it eloquently circles back over the same sets of themes and motifs without growing tired. It’s like a symphony in eight movements.”

–Christopher Kelly, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Four stars. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to probe culture and generational clashes among Bengali brethren living in the U.S. (and occasionally abroad) in her penetrating second collection . . . No character exists in isolation in Lahiri’s new work, which is deeply aware of the power of blood ties; her book is a congregation of siblings, parents, spouses. Neither an exultation of nuclear families nor a cynical catalog of their dysfunction, Unaccustomed Earth is something braver and more difficult: a compassionate inspection of the fissures and disappointments of deep attachment. . . . trenchant. Whether they are middle-aged mothers who tire of years of keeping house in small Northeastern towns, thousands of miles away from Calcutta, or sisters who finally relinquish responsibility for alcoholic younger brothers, these characters are somehow redeemed by their courage to face the day, ‘as typical and terrifying as any other.’”

–Melissa Anderson, Time Out New York

“[Lahiri’s] stories are quiet, deliberate, setting one foot down in front of the other, then exploding with a secret, an encounter, a clash. Quietly, then, they lay back down, leaving the reader astir in their unnerving calm. Lahiri’s [work], however, is rife with characters that are larger than the Bengali immigration experience, experiences larger than mere discontent. She’s an artist of the family portrait. The eight stories in Unaccustomed Earth have an emotional wisdom weightier than in Lahiri’s first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and they contain a more nuanced tightness than her neo-Chekhovian first novel, The Namesake . . . Her new stories are better, stronger–evidence of a writer pushing herself to a deeper level. . . . Old-fashioned in her approach, contemporary in her subject matter, Lahiri anchors these stories in character. . . . In [‘Unaccustomed Earth’ and ‘Only Goodness’], new life brings hope to broken families, and mothers awash in tears must carry on when the baby cries. [Lahiri] captures these moments with clarity and grace, a tangible knowledge of how souls twist in the wind. . . . The ‘Hema and Kaushik’ stories, a trilogy that closes the book, prove the most haunting. The characters, Lahiri has said in interviews, lived with her for a decade, and their presence feels imprinted in these pages as if by letterpress. . . . In these three stories, Lahiri experiments with point of view. Forsaking her usual third-person narrator, she goes for the intimate whispers of first person. If one felt like a fortunate fly on the wall in previous stories, now the effect is to sit in between the