Alfred A. Knopf | April 27, 2021
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel Whereabouts follows an unnamed narrator in an unnamed Italian city, grappling with loneliness. The book is spare, meditative, and episodic. The narrative follows not a defined plot but a series of moments, beautifully showcasing the way we experience life: the moments that are most important—the turning points—are often only realized in retrospect.
The book, which follows the narrator through a cycle of seasons, starts in spring, a season that’s been underscored by personal tragedy for the narrator—the death of her father, the realization that a lover was cheating on her—and as the novel unfolds, the separation she’s often felt between herself and others becomes acute. For example, when she’s at a celebration for a colleague’s daughter, she notes: “Though we’re crowded together I feel separate from the group, excluded from their enduring, unquestioned bonds.” This feeling takes root again while watching her married friends’ house while they’re away: “This is the private morphology of a family, of two people who fall in love and have children: an enterprise as mundane as it is utterly specific. And all at once I see how they form an ingenious organism, an impenetrable collective.” The narrator recognizes a boundary but cannot breach it.
The recognition of this boundary plays out in various scenes and is often blurred in unforeseen ways. For example, at her apartment’s swimming pool, the narrator is aware of the personal boundaries set by the pool’s lap lanes: “Eight different lives share that water at a time, never intersecting.” Where she and her neighbors often do intersect is the locker room, where the other women’s sharing of personal stories and gossip discomfit the narrator: “As I take in these losses, these tragedies, it occurs to me that the water in the pool isn’t so clear after all. It reeks of grief, of heartache. It’s contaminated . . . It burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.” For all this passive intimacy—this absorption of unasked-for information—one older woman takes it a step further: she offers the narrator some of her clothing, explaining, “‘It’s been decades since I’ve had a waist.’”
This, perhaps, is what’s most strikingly lyrical about Whereabouts—this tide of loneliness in an individual life is often intersected by snatches of intimacy. At a nail salon, the narrator is moved by the touch of the beautician: “I give her my hands, she takes them into her own, and for a while she and I are connected.” She notes a familiar sandwich maker who has “known me forever,” who says, “‘Here you go, my dear,’” as he gives her a sandwich. At a train station, the narrator is struck by the kindness of the station bar owner, who allows her to leave without paying for her coffee in order to catch her train: “Such a kind and unexpected gesture on the first day of the year replenishes me but it also discombobulates, so much so that as I ride home, my eyes brim with tears.” The narrator is a master of observing others, which makes the moments when someone sees her and specifically offers her a kindness both healing and a jolt to her familiar solitude.
Despite the occasional kindnesses, in the middle of the novel, the narrator realizes she’s struggling, admitting, “I’m flummoxed by this unraveling of time, I’m losing my grip on myself.” She fears something unknown; perhaps she fears the unknown itself. The separateness she’s experienced is now a burden: “Solitude: it’s become my trade . . . And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.” She is keenly aware of the relationships between others, of how the lives of others intersect more readily than her own. She watches an estranged father and daughter at a restaurant, notes that the father eats his daughter’s unfinished meal in spite of their disagreement. She follows a married couple she’s friends with as they fight in the street, and notices how “they talk at the same time, their sentences overlapping . . .” She sees an elderly couple, and how the man supports the sick woman so that “their bodies are almost attached.”
Just as the novel follows the seasonal changes of a year, the last few chapters find the narrator on the cusp of a new season in her own life. The prospect of community—of sharing life with others—is now compelling to her. The narrator decides to leave her city and country for a fellowship opportunity. She notes, “I’ll never have to eat dinner by myself.” But it’s clear that this movement isn’t easy: “This morning I’m scared. I’m afraid to leave this house, this neighborhood, this urban cocoon.” Despite the trepidation over what she’s leaving behind, the narrator reflects: “something’s telling me to push past the barrier of my life, just like the dog that pulled me along the paths of the villa. And so I heed my call, having come to know the guts and soul of this place a little too well.” Approaching the unknown with a bit more of her own volition than the year before, the narrator accepts the in-betweenness of this transition, occupying a space that spans what was and what is to be. In the final chapter, “On the Train,” a vivid, incredibly alive group of passengers join the narrator’s compartment, listening to loud music, feeding each other blood oranges, walnuts, and chocolate, and inviting the narrator to join them. When they leave, the open seats linger like open possibilities for the narrator, who is now moving deeper into the unknown.
Throughout Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, I found myself saying, “She’s writing to me.” And indeed, she is writing for all of us who have found ourselves a little older, a little more alone and uncertain. The fact that Whereabouts is also Lahiri’s first self-translation of a full-length work from Italian to English adds another layer of meditation. Who are we when we translate ourselves into words? Sometimes words become that foothold, that ability to locate ourselves in space; at other times, it is the untranslatable—like the exuberance of strangers on a train—that lend to a story all the words we do not know.