Why do we leave where we come from? The question is central to writers of diasporic fiction, a diverse coterie within which Jhumpa Lahiri tends to be grouped. But with Whereabouts, her third and latest novel, Lahiri resists this potentially reductive characterization by eschewing all but the most general markers of her protagonist’s identity. Made up of forty-six vaguely titled vignettes, one for each year of its nameless narrator’s existence, the novel follows the meanderings of a literature professor living in a nameless Italian city. “On the Street,” “In the Piazza,” “In my Head”—these are the vague coordinates of her whereabouts, both spatial and psychic, as she approaches a crossroads in her life.
The vignettes in Whereabouts are self-contained, but when read sequentially paint a complicated portrait of a woman burdened by the fixedness of the city where she has lived since her youth. Her connection to this place is challenged by her perception of the “unraveling of time”: most of her friends have families, her mother is aging, and the city is changing, leaving the narrator to wonder where exactly her life is headed. In this way, the novel is cloaked in a certain melancholy. The entries sometimes read like litanies of lost opportunity, as the protagonist mourns once-possible futures, dwells on trajectories her life might have taken. She ruminates over chance run-ins with a man she “might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with,” and silently envies the vivacious teenage daughter of a friend, whose escapades fill her with regret at her own “squandered youth, the absence of rebellion.”
“In spring I suffer,” one entry begins. “The season doesn’t invigorate me, I find it depleting.” Sharply perceptive, jaded but not bitter, Lahiri’s narrator is not the type for decorum, and at times she appears neurotic. “Afflicted by the green of the trees, the first peaches in the market,” she recounts feelings “of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment.” But it’s not all bleakness. She revels in happy memories too, and conveys small joys with elegant intimacy, such as basking on “the balcony off my apartment when the sun is shining and I’m having breakfast,” or how much she likes “to sit outside, pick up a warm pen...and write down a sentence or two.”