Monday, March 05, 2007

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Mariner Books, 2003
Fiction; 291 pgs

Started: 02/27/2007
Completed: 03/04/2007
Rating: * (Good)

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)


  1. Thanks so much, Literary Feline! I want to read this novel, thanks to your review.

  2. I LOVED the movie! Hope you get to see it soon.

  3. That sounds really interesting! I went on to my library's website just now and looked it up. They have it in audiobook form, so I'm going to get it. Thanks for pointing it out!

    I read "Interpreter of Maladies" several years ago. :)

  4. I really really LOVED this book and recommended it to everyone. Even my dad loved it, which says something!! I can't wait to go see the movie!

  5. I adored Interpreter of Maladies and began reading The Namesake in a restaurant one day. MUST get back to it, since I put it aside in favor of other things at the time.

  6. This has been sitting on my shelf forever, I must read it soon. Thanks for reminding me.

  7. The book sounds great! I saw the trailer for the movie and it looked really good too. Interesting about names - I have never liked my name and always wished my middle name was my first name (Elizabeth).

  8. Thanks for the review! I've been hearing more about this book, now I know what it's about.

  9. This is one I want to read before I see the movie. I liked how he suggested using pronouns and letting children name themselves at 18. Although I'm sure I would have picked something weird.

  10. I have been wanting to read this book. Maybe I will move it to the top of the pile. Thanks for the review!

  11. Sounds great. Thanks for another terrific review!

  12. I thought this was good but not outstanding. I prefered her earlier short stories and would certainly recommend those.

  13. I read Interpreter of Maladies last year and quite enjoyed it, especially as I'm not usually a fan of that genre. I've heard only positive comments on The Namesake, so I want to read it before I see the film.

  14. I really enjoyed this book too, and I wouldn't have picked it up if it hadn't been a book club selection. Very nice review! You covered it beautifully.

    That's so true about names. They're so very personal and (usually) we have no choice in them! My name IS a nickname! I still whine a bit about it. Such a cop out.

  15. Argh. I am not Anonymous! Sorry about that. Clicked too soon.

  16. So many great comments! Thank you everyone for stopping in. :-)

    Bybee - I do hope you will read it. It's a good one!

    Maggie - I'm envious that you got to see the movie already! Lucky you!

    Zandria - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    I definitely need to read Interpreter of Maladies.

    Lisa - Race you to the theater! Haha

    Estella (is that you, Andi?) - I do hope you are able to pick it up again!

    Kookiejar - The movie finally motivated me to give it a try.:-) I hope you will enjoy it!

    Jackie - I agree, the movie looks great! I am not a fan of my own middle name, I'm afraid. I don't like to share that with people.

    Nyssaneala - After seeing the movie trailer, I expected something a little different than what I got when I read the book. Now I'm anxious to see how the movie plays out.

    Booklogged - Yes, I imagine I probably would have picked an odd name too. LOL I think my problem would have more likely been my lack of ability to choose just one. I would facilate between names . . .

    Malady - I do hope you will give it a try!

    Bookfool - Oh! Thank you so much!

    be_zen8 - Although I cannot compare it to her earlier work, I do have to agree with you. Like you, I thought the book was good, but not outstanding (as you can see by my rating). It didn't have that wow factor.

    Lesley - I hope you are able to do so. I much prefer reading a book before seeing a movie. I'm really curious to see how the movie turns out. Lucky for me, I'm not a stickler for accuracy from book to movie, but I'm always interested to see how the two compare.

    Carrie K - Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed the book as well. :-)

    My name doesn't really lend itself well to nicknames so I understand.

  17. If my TBR pile ever gets any shorter I'd like to read some of her work. I just heard an NPR interview with the Director who is turning/turned? this book into a movie. Definitely sounds like a good movie to see too.

  18. I think the movie is supposed to hit theaters here next week. I'm looking forward to seeing it.


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