You’ve heard this story before. Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Anzia Yezierska, and Edwidge Danticat are just a few of the authors who have told their own versions. The story they all have in common: The immigrant experience in the United States. Each of the above authors tackles this subject from a different enthnographic perspective, but the pull between the old (native) culture and the new (immigrant) one is always present.
Pulitzer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri adds to this conversation with The Namesake (2003) (her first novel which was a follow up to her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies which won the Pulitzer): the epic story of the Ganguli family’s arrival and assimilation into the world of the United States.
The story begins when Ashoke and his wife (of an arranged marriage), Ashima, come to Massachusetts where Ashoke is a graduate student at MIT. The year is 1968. At the beginning of the novel Ashima is pregnant with her first child, a son.
In Bengali culture, it is common for people to have a formal name and a pet name (nickname). Ashoke has no problem coming up with a nickname for their son: Gogol. Unfortunately, due to a variety of mishaps and misunderstandings, the formal name proves harder to settle on and even harder to enforce. So Gogol Ganguli grows up with only a pet name–one that is not American, or Indian, or a first name.
No one really cares that Gogol’s name is so unique, except Gogol whose anxiety over his name is bothersome enough that no external taunts are necessary. Gogol eventually resolves to rename himself, but not after learning the life-changing story that inspired his father give Gogol his name in the first place.
Despite the vast period Lahiri writes about, the novel’s focus remains narrowly focused on the characters, especially Ashima and her son. Despite the authenticity that Lahiri brings to her main characters, certain scenes remain naggingly artificial–feeling simultaneously improbable and contrived.
Lahiri’s writing here (I’ve yet to read her short stories) is beautiful without being pretentious or overly self-aware. The story feels authentic and compelling despite the fact that so many of the cultural references remain worlds away.
Even more interesting is the fact that I enjoyed almost the entire novel despite having a strong dislike of Gogol and several of the secondary characters. (I’d say more about what this means in terms of the writing style/skill but I still haven’t figured out how that happened.) Despite my misgivings throughout the novel, Gogol does work toward redeeming himself by the end of the story.
Regardless of my nitpicks, The Namesake remains a must for anyone interested in the immigrant experience in America. Lahiri’s narrative hearkens back to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex which has a similar scope, tracing three generation’s relationship with Detroit.
The Namesake deals with common themes but, as any good book should, Lahiri makes these subjects new and original with her unique characters and wonderful writing.
Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, A Step From Heaven by An Na, The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan, The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska