April 6, 2008 12:00 AM

Wise tales of life's sadness

Jhumpa Lahiri's first two books were more vivid than free. Albums of precision, they depicted a Bengali-American world rich with customs and cuisine, with vermilion striping the parted hair of married women, with second-generation children wielding Ivy League degrees and navigating contradictory worlds. "Unaccustomed Earth" returns to this same upwardly mobile immigrant setting, but it achieves something more profound than either "The Interpreter of Maladies," Lahiri's debut short story collection, or "The Namesake," her novel. The eight longish stories here (three of them interconnected) drop their pose and by rearranging themselves -- shifting against themselves -- achieve something forceful and wise. It may be the hybrid length that gives them their naturalness. Lahiri seems to have waited on the unfolding, refusing either to expand the pieces into novellas or to fastidiously tighten the scope. The first story alone is more than 50 pages long.

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