by Erin Lewenauer
Originally written in Italian and now translated by the author, Jhumpa Lahiri's third novel contemplates a contemplative year. Broken into easy, melodic sections—"At the Bar," "On the Street," and "At the Trattoria"—Lahiri’s voice establishes a quick intimacy with the reader. The plot opens with an unnamed, middle-aged, woman narrator considering a year-long fellowship in an Italian city where she'd be free to work in the mornings and dine with scholars throughout the day.
Enchanting and moody, the story begins with an image of death when the narrator passes a roadside memorial: "I've never seen the mother or any other person in front of the plaque. Thinking of the mother just as much as the son, I keep walking, feeling slightly less alive." The scenes meander, as does the narrator along the streets of this foreign yet familiar place she's chosen. As she walks, she reflects on youth and age: "What did I do? I read books and studied. I listened to my parents and did what they asked me to. Even though, in the end, I never made them happy. I didn't like myself, and something told me I'd end up alone." She describes writing and living in another language, and more subtly, the way we translate ourselves throughout a day and a life.
Intensely bound to herself, the narrator explores her circumstances with a therapist, and from time to time we see sharp reflections about her life, past and present. The therapist, and thus the reader, is never truly let in, however:
At every session she would ask me to tell her something positive. Unfortunately my childhood harbors few happy memories. Instead I would tell her about the balcony off my apartment when the sun is shining and I'm having breakfast. And I would tell her how much I like to sit outside, pick up a warm pen in my hand, and write down a sentence or two.
Quiet, confrontational, and consistent, the narrator eloquently observes the layers of activity within each place and passerby, as well as how people shade and eclipse one another, come together and drift apart. Sometimes she's in her own head, sometimes she sifts the thoughts of others, but always she seems to stand just on the threshold. Her narration begs the question: What can we capture of life, especially with this contraption of writing?
Readers looking for easy or simple answers won't find them here. Questions serve as Lahiri’s plot points, and Whereabouts turns out to be a strikingly dark book despite taking place in sunny, charming Italy. But it's also an escape, each scene big as satisfying rain drops plunking down one by one during a long afternoon, and the author collects them, like bright marbles, in intense appreciation. The care Lahiri takes with these small moments is a comfort and a wonder, purporting that life is significant even when formless. It's scenes, not a play, this life. "There's no escaping the unforeseen. We live day by day."