Joolie and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013).
Although we read this one for my more free-form bookclub, it would be a perfect choice for my other book club, the Debbie Downers, because man oh man, this is a downer of a book. And yet I really loved it! I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a person who is a voluntary member of a book club that only reads sad books would like things on the melancholy / tragic side of the scale.
The Lowland takes place in a small community on the outskirts of Calcutta and in University towns of the Northeast United States, mostly in Rhode Island, and spans from the 1950s through to the present day. The action centers on two very different brothers who are, nonetheless, very close to each other as children. Subhash is the older and more conventional of the two brothers. He is thoughtful, risk-averse, and often in the shadow of his more outrageous and political brother, Udayan. While they are very close as children, Udayan's secretive involvement with the Naxalite movement (a violent Maoist group in India) pushes them further apart. Subhash focuses on his studies and ends up moving to Rhode Island to study and oceanography. While he is there he has sporadic correspondence with his brother and parents, but mostly lives in isolation from them (and, to be honest, pretty much everyone else). He has a brief friendship with an American roommate and later a passionate but controlled affair with a recently separated American woman. Then he gets a telegraph from his parents that Udayan is dead, killed by soldiers in front of his family, and he returns home to Calcutta immediately.
There he finds the empty shells of his parents and the sad, angry, and pregnant wife of his brother. Udayan married Gauri, an intellectual and politically active university student, without the permission of either of their parents, and while she has the right to live with her in-laws after her husband's death, she is not welcome. Subhash does one of the only unexpected and risky things of his life, and asks Gauri to marry him, come to the United States, and allow him to raise Udayan's child as his own. She can continue her studies in philosophy in the U. S.
And then things go on and on and on. Gauri has her daughter, who is the one bright spot in the neutral and isolated life of Subhash, but there are very few bright spots or connections for any of the characters in this book that continues to follow Subhash and his family through to their retirements and old age.
Sounds like a real fun read, right? Luckily, with Lahiri at the helm, it really kind of is. The amount of control she exerts over the narrative -- never letting the intense and tragic things become too forceful, or the neutral and isolated sections become too dull -- is impressive and engaging. The crossing back and forth between Bengali and American cultures gives movement to a narrative that is locked into the resignation of the characters and their inability to change, even when they want to. These characters are straightforward and open to the reader in a way that they aren't to each other or, really, to themselves, and that puts us in a unique perspective on these sad, long, isolated, but really not that unique, lives. This is a pretty literary book, but a very readable one as well. Definitely give this one a chance.