In THE NAMESAKE, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, the characters are always hungry: for a place to call home, for family, for love, and, of course, for food. Ashima, in an arranged marriage to Ashoke Ganguli, misses her native India as she sets up house far from her family in Massachusetts, a land of bleak winters that her family will never know, much less understand. Making Bengali food out of American substitutes, she searches desperately for the comfort of her childhood. Time gradually pulls her away from the past, and she learns the ways of America, becomes friends with other transplanted Bengalis, and begins a family. A quiet affection develops between Ashima and Ashoke as they raise their two children, oddly-named Gogol and his sister Sonia. The novel lovingly follows the family through decades of heartache and celebrations.
Gogol is the novel's center and its primary perspective, the namesake of the title. Although he does not know it until much later in life, Gogol is named after the Russian author not because, as he is told at first, Gogol is his father's favorite writer but because a copy of Gogol's short stories saved Ashoke's life after a train wreck. To Ashoke, the name of Gogol signifies a beginning, survival, "everything that followed" the horrific night spent in the rubble. This idea is the heart of the novel; as immigrants the Gangulis must look forward to what lies ahead instead of what is past. In America, Ashima and Ashoke are reborn, just as their children must find their own paths.
Rich with detail and infused with affection, this novel has a lyricism that brings the Gangulis' world to life without exoticism. The description of food - Indian, French, American - is so exactly decadent that one should not read this book hungry. The only thing this wonderful novel suffers from is a neatly-wrapped nostalgia in the final chapter. Despite this minor flaw, I highly recommend this novel for a wide readership. Only those who desire strongly plotted fiction should be disappointed. (4.5 stars)
on August 11, 2004
You can't love a book as much as I loved Interpreter of Maladies and not seek out anything else by the author. Lahiri's new book, published in 2003 and now available in paperback, is a novel rather than a collection of short stories, and I can't help but note that despite my preference for the novel form, Lahiri was in the right line of work before. The Namesake has moments of breathtaking beauty, and I enjoyed it--very much, in fact. Indeed, it feels like one of Lahiri's short stories about an Indian immigrant expanded to fill a novel, or even like a series of short stories about the same people, but disjointed. Rather than following a plot, Lahiri follows a life; this is a brave and admirable choice that causes the novel to meander just as a life does. My fear is that some readers will find it unexciting; Lahiri's stories each pack a punch within pages, but this is a slow burn. Still, well worth the time; you'll care deeply about "the namesake" by the time you're through.
First I must say that I waited very impatiently for Lahiri to write a follow up to 'Interpreter of Maldies', her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories. That is one of my favorite books, so I was eager to see what she would do next. That level of expectation usually only serves to hurt a book, but 'The Namesake' is up to the task. Lahiri masterfully weaves a compelling story that doesn't fall into the trap that most short story writers get into when they write a full novel (inevitably most seem drawn out and boring, as if the writer is simply trying to fill the pages). The beautiful prose draws you into the story of Gogol, the son of immigrants from India named after the Russian author. 'The Namesake' is about the gap between Gogol and his family -- he born into America and wanting to fit in with our society, his parents unable to let go of the land they knew and the customs they grew up with. Gogol spends his life distancing himself from them and their ways, somewhat desperately trying to assimilate himself to the American way of life. It is a very relatable, very real story that feels close to the reader's heart and is true to life. This is all thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri, an author with a unique understanding of complex human emotions and an incredible ability to convey them to the reader. 'The Namesake' made the wait from her last book worth the while, and leaves you impatient for her next book all over again.
on September 12, 2004
Some two hundred thirty years ago, an immigrant attempted to answer the vexing question his French parents had posed him: "What is an American?" His answer, famous for its clarity, ignited a debate that continues today. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur's thesis was that the American is a "new man," one who eagerly discarded the cultural traditions of his former home and just as passionately adopted the ethos of his newly adopted land, the United States. The American, de Crevecoeur, discards his former cultural heritage and completely "melts" into his new American charcter. It is the perils, costs and anguish of assimilation that Bengali author Jhumpa Lahiri explores in her brilliant debut novel, "The Namesake." Her exquisitely rendered protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, becomes the archtype for every immigrant who has wrestled with issues of conflicted identity, cultural confusion and humbling marginality.
Through Lahiri's wise and sympathetic characterization, Gogol begins his odyssey towards Americanization even before he is born. His Bengali immigrant parents, whose marriage was arranged by their adherence to cultural tradition, cannot provide a proper name for their American-born son. Their patient but unrewarded anticipation of a "good" name for their son selected by a Calcutta matriarch, results in Gogol inadvertently acquiring a "pet" name chosen by his father. This duality, between Gogol's ethnic roots and his American birthright, perpetually torments him.
Befuddlement, confusion and anger over unresolved identity occurs with dispiriting regularity across the span of Gogol's young life. Even at a traditional Bengali party celebrating his six-month-old status, the infant Gogol, "forced to confront his destiny," cannot and "with lower lip trembling," begins to cry. Ashima and Ashoke, his mother and father, wrestle as well with the burdens of adopting to a new nation. His father seems to assimilate with relative ease, but Ashima likens her immigrant status to a "sort of lifelong pregnancy...a perpetual wait, a constant burden."
As a junior high school student, Gogol loathes his name, despondent that it is "never on keychains." Conscious of his differences, he is hurt by the snickers his parents' accent evokes from store clerks. By actions conscious and unintended, Gogol immerses himself in the American melting pot. It is not an accident that by the time he is an adult, he will live in New York City, a refracted image of "How the Other Half Lives," affluent but disenchanted, externally successful but internally impoverished.
Jhumpa Lahiri seems to understand the enormous costs abandoning one's ethnic identity carry for immigrants who desire nothing more than to blend in. Her Bengali protagonist, acutely aware of his differences but unable to resolve his dual identities, comes to symbolize the anguished decisions all young immigrants must make as they carve out their paths towards becoming American. "The Namesake," in its treatment of individual growth, romantic possibilities and generational reconciliation, is an authentic masterwork.
on November 25, 2004
Based on my reading of Lahiri's fine short story collection that justifiably won the Pulitzer Prize, I expected a complex, nuanced novel which would deliver closely observed and clear writing. I was ready for a real treat.
Instead, I got a kind of automatic writing of a drawn out short story. At first, the book opens very well with descriptions of a birth and an awful train wreck that changes the course of Gogol's father's life. I thought I was in for something brilliant. But then the plot, if one can call it that, drags and drags. The writing becomes antiseptic, mistaking minute observation for literature, and losing its overall passion and reason for being. I had to fight through much of this book, skipping pointless passages, and enduring elaborate descriptions of Gogol's lovers, their clothes and hairstyles, their shoes, their parents, and their parents' homes. All for what?
Then, when Gogol must confront his father's death, we see him acting like a zombie, retching, breaking up with his girlfriend, but never getting to anything that moves us. His mother's reaction to her husband's death seems inauthentic. And in fact, much in this novel is just that. After a while, I just didn't care about the characters.
The real problem is that Lahiri is a short story writer who tried to stretch a short story into a novel, but didn't have the substance in the original idea to bring it off.
I was frankly disappointed.
on September 16, 2003
This is an extremely evocative novel, deft in its exploration of a specific immigrant community, the middle-class Bengali American. While Lahiri describes the quotidian realities of the lives of her characters with amazing nuance -- what they eat (endless menus), what they wear etc. -- I thought the novel was less than satisfying in its portrayal of the central character, Gogol. Perhaps she wanted Gogol to be something of a dweeb. When I finished reading the novel, I asked myself what was interesting about him, apart from his peculiar name. Well, he defies parental/community expectations and becomes an architect instead of a doctor or an engineer. He rarely says anything that's particularly insightful or witty. Apart from the women he sleeps with (Maxine and the Moushumi), he appears to have no friends. In fact, I found the novel most wanting in this respect. We're asked (implicitly) to accept Gogol as a fully realized person, but it appears that he has lived for thirty some years and never managed to have a close friend. If we are to believe that he is attractive enough (physically and intellectually) for people like Maxine and Moushumi (both urban intellectuals with extensive friend circles) to fall for him, then it follows that Gogol himself must have some charisma. But as the finished the novel, I couldn't think of any episodes that reveal to us a compelling or charismatic personality. As I said -- a dweeb.
on November 5, 2006
After a long time, I have finished reading a book completely. And that too - over a weekend.
I came from India as an immigrant to US 10 years back, have two kids aged 10 and 4; and I could associate myself to many experiences the author has illustrated with simple clarity and authenticiy.
* Coming to US with one suitcase in hand and accumlating lot of stuff over years - only to realize that when you are moving up from an aapartment to an independent house
* Going to beaches fully dressed - while everyone else is in swim suites
* Reluctance to buy from the yard sales
* Kids excited by the salamanders from the yard
* Having two names - one formal and one informal name; one called by the society and another called by the loved ones
* Making trips to India - trying to give an exposure to the kids - once in a year or once in two years; Packing / unpacking of 8 suitcases; Packing of the gifts to the friends and relatives in India;
* Being a lonely family at the beginning; and in a couple of years, make so many friends that you do not get a weekend free to be by yourself
* throwing the parties, get togethers where the grown-ups discuss the life, shopping, politics while the kids play video games
* celebrating all the festivals - both hindu festivals as well as thanksgiving, easter, christmas
* feeling the burden of guilt when near and dear ones pass away back in India and the helplessness of not able to be with them during thier last hours of life
Some of the experiences are hilarious and some make you nostalgic and some are gut wrenching.
Until Gogol (the main character who is born in USA at the beginning of the novel) and Sonia (a few years younger to him) are teenagers, I could connect with all the experiences Ashima and Ahoke have gone through on US soil as immigrants.
The experiences Gogol goes through in his teens and twenties - sometimes appeared to be very unfair to the parents; But that is me (the reader) wearing the hat of a first-generation parent.
While the initial chapters outlining the lives of Ahoke and Ashima are a good read (may be I could connect with their experiences very well), the later chapters of Gogol going through brief flings with a couple of girl friends and a marriage that ends in a divorce - it sounded mundane; i skimmed through some of the pages but did not feel that I missed anything.
Of all these experiences, the common theme that runs through the novel is the NAME of a person and the significance/insignificance a name has on a person. The author reflects and highlights very interesting perspectives on the NAME.
Overall, it is one of the best books I would recommend to my friends and colleagues who would be interested to know how an Indian immigrant family leads the life here in US and what changes 25 years of leading life in US would bring to a traditional Indian family.
In "The Namesake" Lahiri once again produces a work of fine art and beauty. But her purpose is to look at the particular cross-cultural problems, especially for children of Indian parents, in the United States. After all, these children are Americans, not Indians. The emotional struggle to deal with that dissonance is finely described by Lahiri, perhaps better than I have ever seen it done before. The internal feelings, self-rationalizations and justifications, and the result of what environment and origin have on people and how that transition can be made, sometimes successfully, but mostly, with some problems and regrets, are beautifully elucidated.
Lahiri's style is fine tuned and explicit. She is insightful and incisive. Her vocabulary is vast, but is not used with academic arrogance in any way. She has a crystal clarity about her writing that leaves little to guess for the reader, but much to ponder. Her subplots mesh seamlessly into a well honed novel.
In addition, it is important that the reader not miss Lahiri's reference to Nikolai Gogol's short story, "The Overcoat." It really is impossible for the reader to miss, it is one of the main premises of Lahiri's plot. The reader is well advised to read the story before reading the book, as the plots are interwoven in certain non-obvious manners. But near the end, Lahiri tackles one of the main issues of everyone's life, her protagonist and that of "The Overcoat." She seeks to interpret in some way, how so many of the events in our lives seem out of our control, even random. Toward the end, Lahiri has her protagonist, named Gogol, say this: "In so many ways, his family life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another." But as in "The Overcoat" Lahiri tries to tell us, that in some way, the soul can and does live on, in the hearts of those who remember. And just as in "The Overcoat" the remnant of the protagonist's soul remains, so too, the remnant of Gogol's father's soul still remains, in Gogol's memory, forever.
on April 14, 2005
In Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri rigorously imagines nine realities inhabited by vivid characters whose perfectly calibrated strangenesses and compelling actions take us where we would not have gone before. In The Namesake, her strong beginning, involving her two most compelling characters, Gogol's parents, devolves into bland, yuppy stereotyping as she moves on to the life of the namesake, with whom she clearly identifies. First, I question the appropriation of the writer Gogol in this novel. Unlike Michael Cunningham's The Hours, The Namesake pays no serious homage or attention to Gogol, but merely borrows the author's name and makes use of the most obvious biographical information--i.e. that Gogol was awkward, very unhappy. There is no literary investigation/application of Gogol's work, and, to me, the prominent surface appropriation of Gogol in the Namesake is not justified. The shallowness of the Gogol concept unfortunately also afflicts the increasingly thin plot of the novel. There is not the multi-tonal, multi-textured richness that we need in a 300 page novel in which less and less happens. Surprisingly, the character Gogol is not really developed, and, increasingly, cultural touchstones are introduced to flesh the character out, in place of the fantastic, quirky, convincing character development in Interpreter of Maladies. For example, Gogol, the son of immigrants from India who remain people of very modest means attends Yale as an undergraduate. We never see that he has the focus, intensity, brilliance, or financial means to underwrite his education, nor are we told how this expense was paid for. Similarly, after the college years, Gogol's young adulthood is depicted as a series of upper middle class cultural adventures (i.e. expensive meals, wine, presents, and vacations) that would max out the budgets of established 40 year olds. The beginning of the novel is very good and Gogol's parents remain the strong, haunting presences of this novel. But I feel that Lahiri could have pushed her plot out of its comfort zone to find ways to keep Gogol's parents, and the real Gogol, the writer, more bothersome, persistent, strange, vivid, and alive throughout this novel. The yuppy extravaganza that the namesake falls into is not nearly as attractive to read about as Ms. Lahiri seems to assume, and is not grounded in the true ideas behind her novel, which atrophy. She certainly can write a 300 page novel--there is no doubt about that. I hope her next one shows the courage, inventiveness, and rigorous imaginative powers of the Interpreter of Maladies. She needs to work in the dangerous deep of her writing, not in her writing's shallows, and to beware of the potentially cloying and, I agree, potentially automatic quality of her often brilliant lyricism.
on January 1, 2005
I closed this book and exclaimed, "What a disappointment!" Ms. Lahiri's book of short stories was simply outstanding. To give her and "The Namesake" its due, this book is well-written and the characters of Gogol and his parents, Asoke and Ashima, are well-developed, and Ms. Lahiri is great at atmospheric detail. However, the book is like a story without a meaning or a point - that may be OK in short stories but in a novel it should be suicidal. Granted, you needn't write with a meaning or to have a point, but it is sad to see so little inner life and reflection in her characters, especially in Gogol who is 32 years old by the end of the book... He has been through three extended romances and affairs including one failed marriage. The way that he and Moushoumi slip so easily in and out of bed with others, i.e. how they sleep around, I find not to be representative of or a norm in second generation Indian American life. So much sex and never an an unintended pregnancy!... But I return, what is really disappointing is how shallow and superficial the inner life of Gogol is, something I don't feel is representative of people born between two cultures and two worlds...