The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Mariner Books, 2003
Fiction; 291 pgs
First Sentence: On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.
Reason For Reading: I came across The Namesake while browsing through Borders one morning. A movie based on the book is coming out in theaters shortly, and so I decided this would be a good time to give this one a try.
From the Publisher: The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along a first-generation path strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves.
Comments: At one point in the novel, Gogol comments, “’There’s no such thing as a perfect name. I think that human beings should be allowed to name themselves when they turn eighteen,’ he adds. ‘Until then, pronouns.’” [pg 245] How many of us wished at some point in our lives we had been given different names? Or at least disliked our own so much that we wished it had been different? Growing up, I always wanted a name that inspired a nickname (Victoria, Elizabeth, Jessica, or something like that). My real name sounds like a nickname, I used to complain.
Gogol was no different. He hated his name. He did not like that it was so unusual, so different. I think in some respects it went deeper than that for him. It was not just the name he wanted to spurn, but the traditions and practices of his Indian culture as well. Jhumpa Lahiri does a good job of providing insight into the lives of her characters, allowing readers to get to know and care for the many characters. Ashima and Ashoke are the first generation immigrants who must adjust to a new culture and still hold onto their own traditions and beliefs, although sometimes making accommodations as their children struggled to fit in. That in and of itself would be a very difficult thing to do. Their children face different obstacles, trying to blend both worlds, sometimes forsaking one for the other in the process of finding a balance.
This is also a story about family, the relationship between a father and a son, a husband and a wife. Even for someone like me who may not have experienced the same types of difficulties that the Ganguli family did, much of this story is universal, something many of us can relate to.
The Namesake was not quite what I expected—it is a story simply told, the author creating a time line that moves readers quickly through the life of the family from before Gogol’s birth right up into his thirties. In a sense, The Namesake is a coming of age story, one that will resonant with readers everywhere.
Favorite Part: The novel held many defining moments for the characters, and perhaps one of my favorite scenes, although heartbreaking, was when Gogol’s father presents him with a special gift on his birthday. The gift has personal meaning for Gogol’s father, a meaning lost to the teenage son who isn’t quite able to grasp the importance of it.
Of all the characters, I liked Ashima best. Ashoke comes in a close second. They were the most well defined characters, the two I came to care about and admire the most throughout the story.
Other Works by Author I Want to Read: Interpreter of Maladies (short stories about first and second generation Indian immigrants)