Some books leave you with a feeling for which there are no words, or at least no words in English that you know of. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is one of those books. The feeling closest to what is evoked by this beautifully crafted novel is a stroll during the blue hour on the first warm evening of spring. (Surely there’s a word for that in German.)
Whereabouts is narrated by a middle-aged woman who lives in a country that is much like Italy—and likely is, as the novel was written in Italian and translated by the author. The woman is unmarried and has no children. She has loads of friends and a satisfying enough career in academia. Her father died suddenly when she was young. She had a contentious relationship with her mother, who is alive but fading, and now their relationship has mellowed a bit. The narrator is neither depressed nor ecstatically happy. She tends to regard everything she sees with a cool, pleasurable equanimity. Even the most shocking kerfuffle in the novel (which we won’t reveal here) passes like a storm cloud.
One of the many joys of this little book, besides Lahiri’s usual gorgeous writing, is that there’s almost no plot. The chapters are short, some less than a page, with headers like “In Spring,” “At the Register,” “At My House.” They are all about the narrator watching, listening and thinking, whether about a favorite stationery shop suddenly turned into a luggage store, how some old flame has aged (and how she ever could have loved him in the first place) or the intimacy of a manicure.
Another lovely thing about the book is that you don’t even have to read its chapters in order. The novel is like a contemporary orarium, a collection of private devotions to read for insight and comfort before going to bed. Whereabouts is even physically small, just the size for a purse or a roomy pocket, to pull out and enjoy when you have a moment. It is a jewel of a book.