I noticed The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri as a Prime freebie on my Kindle and just started reading it on a whim. I like to have a book going on my phone for times when I don’t have an actual print book with me to read, and there are times when it’s just easier to read on my phone. (I’m mostly thinking of times like when I dry my hair. There is no telling how many pages I’ve read with my head upside down. 🙂 ) Lahiri isn’t a completely unknown author to me because she is one who is sometimes assigned by some teachers in the community college classes I teach a few sections of. She was on my radar for that reason alone.
(Warning: this review contains a few spoilers.)
I was fascinated by this story from the get-go because it is such an intimate depiction of life in cultures completely foreign to my own. It starts out with the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, an Indian couple who moved from Calcutta after their arranged marriage was made official, for Ashoke to finish his education at MIT. Within a few chapters, the story switches its focus from Ashima and Ashoke to their son, Gogol. We follow Gogol into his early adulthood, observing all the ways Gogol first rejects and then begins to value his heritage. Gogol and his sister, Sonia, are completely American, yet because of their parents, their lives are hemmed in by the Bengali culture that is present in New England where they live. Gogol grows up to become an architect, studying first at Yale and then at Columbia. He dates a couple of American women, finally, in his late twenties, marrying a fellow Indian, Moushumi, whom he has known peripherally most of his life. This statement greatly simplifies his romantic attachments and relationships, which are a big focus of the story. Through them we see how he is constantly looking for the thing that his family is not: American, sophisticated, self-assured. Still, his marriage to Moushumi does not ensure his happiness, either, because their interests and ways of looking at the world are completely different due to both their educations and fundamental temperaments. The notion of an arranged marriage is reprehensible to both him and Moushumi, yet what we observe through the story is that Gogol’s parents are one of the most stable and happy couples in the story.
The title of this novel, The Namesake, is the unifying motif of the novel. It is a reference to Gogol’s name. Indian children are given a pet name and a “good” or formal name. Gogol is his pet name, chosen to honor his father’s favorite author, Nikolai Gogol, a Russian (Ukrainian) author with a tragic life story. The name Gogol has special significance for Ashoke because he was reading book by Nikolai Gogol when he was in a terrible train wreck, and it was the movement of a page from the book in the wreckage that alerted the rescuers that he was alive under the rubble. However, Gogol ends up being both the boy’s pet name and his good name. His great grandmother in Calcutta sent her chosen name for him, as was their tradition, through the mail, but the letter is never delivered. Then the grandmother’s health declines to the point that she is unable to remember or say the name she had chosen. Even after his parents decide to give him Nikhil as his good name for kindergarten, Gogol is the name he knows and the only one he answers to. The name Gogol sticks. However, as he grows and matures, he comes to despise his name, first because it is foreign (though not Indian, and not something he can transform into a real nickname), then because it was the name of some pathetic Russian author. As a young man, Gogol goes so far as to legally change his name to Nikhil.
This story falls into the category of literary fiction. It is well written, with meanings that go far beyond the literal and tangible. For example, when Gogol is attempting to take some pictures from an album to show his girlfriend in order to help her understand the Bengali part of his life, we have this description:
He tries to peel the image from the sticky yellow backing, to show her the next time he sees her, but it clings stubbornly, refusing to detach cleanly from the past.
Could that be any more pointed, yet any more subtly appropriate? That one description might be an encapsulation of the complication of the whole story.
I found this story very poignant, for many of the situations in the novel that are made complicated and even painful due to the clashing of cultures might also come to play even in my own life due to generational differences, etc. I loved Ashima from the moment I met her in page one of the story, and Ashoke grew on me. As frustrated as I often felt with Gogol, I could definitely understand why he acts the way he does throughout the story. The Namesake has a complete and satisfying story arc, and I very much appreciate that. The only thing about this story that gives me pause is the adult content. I am not a fan of graphic anything in my books. Thus, I can’t in good conscience give this one a Highly Recommended because of about three very graphic (but thankfully short!) **x scenes. It’s still a fascinating, well-written story. (2003)