Sunday, April 17, 2011

Audiobook Review: The Namesake

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!


  1. I agree about Gogol being a bit spoiled. I preferred the story of his parents and their adjustment to life in America, especially his mother. The movie is quite good and Irrfan Khan plays the father, he is just wonderful.

    I've wanted to read Gogol ever since but still haven't gotten to him yet. I've heard Dead Souls is a hoot.

  2. Karen -- I haven't seen the movie, but now that I've read the book I'm looking forward to it! I haven't read Gogol either, and I do wonder if the book would have been different if I'd read The Overcoat. But that's for another year :-)

  3. I really want to try Lahiri's work, but have to admit that a disappointing ending can ruin a book for me. I'll have to think about this one.

  4. @Kathy -- I thought the book was worth it, because the arc of Ashima's story goes on throughout the book. So I would highly recommend it, even without loving Gogol's part of the story.

  5. Several times when I meet someone (especially a reader) who learns that my parents immigrated from India, I hear the words, "Oh, I LOVED The Namesake!" as though somehow that means they completely understand the Indian immigrant experience. Personally, I couldn't get through the book much for the same reasons you listed above- I really didn't like Gogol at all. I also think Lahiri, who is Bengali herself, acts as though Bengalis are the greatest people ever to come from India, and as an Indian who is *not* Bengali, that really annoys me ;-) I don't think non-Indians notice that as much, but I know many Indians who get annoyed by her Bengali bent as well. Though to be fair, Bengal DOES have an amazing literary history.

  6. I enjoyed the book's first story, as well. I found his parents very warm and likable characters. I loved the book and was really anticipating the movie, but in my opinion, it was a real stinker. It's interesting to browse through your comments section and see the different reactions from readers. I'll be reading Gogol's Dead Souls in a month for the Classics Challenge, and this makes me ever more excited about it. P.S. If you haven't heard Lahiri provide vocals for narration, you must soon; I love her voice!

  7. @Aarti -- Maybe the fact that Lahiri is Bengali explains her sympathetic rendering of Ashima, and her distance from Gogol? I didn't really think a lot about the Bengali-centric view, although I did find it weird that there was no mention of non-Bengali immigrants the Ganguli's would have invariably encountered in the US. It's kind of like assuming that everyone from North America is from NYC -- which might tick off the folks in Vancouver just a bit! :-)

  8. @Beth -- I see what you mean. The movie definitely gets mixed reviews. We can always include it in a ChicFlic DVD Festival, and see what happens ;-) I haven't heard Lahiri's voice -- I wonder why she didn't narrate The Namesake (although I have no complaints about Choudhury, she's wonderful). I'm looking forward to hearing her voice now.

  9. Hi!
    It sounds like a good book. A little confusing, but interesting. Thanks for stopping by my place. Have a great day!

    Just Books

  10. Lahari is a favorite author. She is about due for a new book it seems. I liked Namesake (and her other books a lot).

    BTW...she worked at my town library when she was in high school. He father taught at the University..LOL

  11. I have to say that I loved The Namesake - I wasn't even bothered by Gogol's whining! On reflection, though, I did enjoy his parents story more than his. This is a perfect pick for the Immigrant Stories Challenge - thanks for reading and linking up your review!


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