Jhumpa Lahiri's poignant first novel builds on the themes of her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. In The Namesake, the Ganguli family emigrates from Calcutta to Cambridge to the Boston suburbs at the end of the 1960s, shortly after their arranged marriage. An MIT engineering student, Ashoke is progressive and ready to enter American culture, while his tradition-bound wife, Ashima, desperately misses her Indian home and resists the new world. When their first child, a boy, is born, they give him the pet name of Gogol, after the Russian writer, whose writings Ashoke believes were instrumental in saving his life. This tale of three generations sensitively explores the profound conflicts between cultures and generations, the child's search for cultural identity, and the power of acceptance
Any talk of The Namesake
--Jhumpa Lahiri's follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies
--must begin with a name: Gogol Ganguli. Born to an Indian academic and his wife, Gogol is afflicted from birth with a name that is neither Indian nor American nor even really a first name at all. He is given the name by his father who, before he came to America to study at MIT, was almost killed in a train wreck in India. Rescuers caught sight of the volume of Nikolai Gogol's short stories that he held, and hauled him from the train. Ashoke gives his American-born son the name as a kind of placeholder, and the awkward thing sticks.
Awkwardness is Gogol's birthright. He grows up a bright American boy, goes to Yale, has pretty girlfriends, becomes a successful architect, but like many second-generation immigrants, he can never quite find his place in the world. There's a lovely section where he dates a wealthy, cultured young Manhattan woman who lives with her charming parents. They fold Gogol into their easy, elegant life, but even here he can find no peace and he breaks off the relationship. His mother finally sets him up on a blind date with the daughter of a Bengali friend, and Gogol thinks he has found his match. Moushumi, like Gogol, is at odds with the Indian-American world she inhabits. She has found, however, a circuitous escape: "At Brown, her rebellion had been academic ... she'd pursued a double major in French. Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge--she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind." Lahiri documents these quiet rebellions and random longings with great sensitivity. There's no cleverness or showing-off in The Namesake, just beautifully confident storytelling. Gogol's story is neither comedy nor tragedy; it's simply that ordinary, hard-to-get-down-on-paper commodity: real life. --Claire Dederer