Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake felt like two different stories to me. The first one is the immigrant story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, a story I found beautiful, compelling and warm. The book begins with the recently married Ashima in the delivery room of a Massachusetts hospital, thinking about what the experience would be like if she were at home with her family –the traditions, the help, the familiarity. She struggles through the American way, though, and delivers the boy they call “Gogol,” after the Russian author, until they can find out the name bestowed upon him by Ashima’s grandmother in India. Unfortunately, the letter never arrives, Ashima’s dear grandmother dies, and Gogol the little boy remains.
The first story is driven by Ashima’s strong desire to succeed, despite the unfamiliar situation in which she finds herself. Lahiri paints a wonderful character – you love her from the moment she impetuously slips her feet in to Ashoke’s American-style shoes when the families meet to arrange the marriage. Like so many immigrants, she is torn – missing her old life desperately, but finally thriving in the new one. Ashima builds a family of sorts from the Bengali immigrant community, doing her best to recreate the huge, extended family that her children would have had in India.
Gogol’s lifelong attempt to define himself drives the second story – a story that was far less satisfying for me than the first one. Frankly, Gogol struck me as a bit of a brat, but I wasn’t sure if that’s what Lahiri intended. He’s smart and privileged (his father is an engineering professor, so he flouts family tradition by going to Yale rather than MIT, oh the horror) and not even bad looking, and yet he seems to be obsessed by the fact that his name is weird. Or at least it’s weird for a Bengali-American kid.
Perhaps Lahiri was trying to underscore the differences between the immigrant generation and their children – differences that seem to be exacerbated by our hyper-mediated society, which thrusts even first generation Americans into the mainstream far faster than in previous migrations. But in the end Gogol seemed like a whiner to me – by the time the book got to its climax, I wasn’t too worried about what would happen to Gogol. In fact, I liked the women in his life better than him, and was pretty sure that moving on would be the right move for them.
That’s not to say the book wasn’t enjoyable though. I listened to the audio version, read beautifully by Sarita Choudhury. She has a truly lovely voice, and mixed Indian and American accents well. And she had a lot to work with – Lahiri truly has a gift for language. I loved how most of her narrative kept you constantly aware of where the characters were – place, especially unfamiliar places, are so much a part of the immigrant experience. Maybe that’s why I was disappointed by Lahiri’s ending – arguably the most important incident in Gogol’s life gets related in a flashback: the reader has been present for so much of Gogol’s story, and it felt like Lahiri shut us out of a critical episode. It was a strange choice.
Still, this is a fantastic audiobook, easy to follow and a pleasure to hear. I recommend it highly for those who like contemporary literary fiction, immigrant fiction, and fiction featuring characters from South Asia. The story is both entertaining and wise, and the characters are very real – real enough to annoy me in one case, true, but that’s still pretty real!
This book was a triple threat – it counts for the Book Bloggers Abroad, Immigrant Stories, and South Asia Reading Challenges. That’s a good thing, since the end-of-semester crush has seriously cut into my reviewing time! Thanks to Judith at Leeswammes, Colleen at Books in the City, and Swapna at S.Krishna’s Books for hosting! And don’t forget to check out Audiobook Jukebox for audiobook recommendations – I’ll be posting a link to this review there!