The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

This book is Jhumpa Lahiri’s second published work, coming out in 2003 after her Pulitzer Prize win in 2000 for her short story collection,’The Intepreter of Maladies’ reviewed here. It is the story of Gogol, named for his father, Ashoke’s, favourite author, the Russian Nikolai Gogol, who ‘ saved his life’ in a horrendous accident. Burdened by this bizarre name while growing up in 1970s and 80s America, and  desperate to conform to the norms of his peer group, Gogol is also seeking his cultural identity within and between his Bengali heritage and his American environment. Lahiri tells the story brilliantly of his parents, Ashoke and Ashima, settling into family life in the States of the 70s and 80s:  she paints the picture of a Bengali couple gradually giving in to the rituals of American family life , such as celebrating Christmas and allowing hamburgers once a week,  to please their children , while at the same time recognising Hindu festivals and getting together on Saturday nights for ‘boisterous’ Bengali parties. We see Gogol growing up and leaving home to study at Yale, asserting his identity by changing his name to Nikhil, but then as a young adult moving in and out of identifying with young Americans and his Bengali family. We see his relationship with Maxine, who lives with her parents, Gerald and Lydia, through which he has access to a successful, white, middle class, supremely confident milieu; his status within their family reminded me of Nick Guest at the Feddens in ‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst and anyone who has moved social class and milieu will recognise his fascination with his new patron , played out  in minute observation of their habits and predilections.  When his father dies unexpectedly, however, he drops them and everything else and returns home to support his mother and mourn for his father according to Bengali tradition. One year later he is ‘introduced’ by his mother to the sophisticated Moushumi, a young woman of Bengali origin, with whom he falls in love. Gogol and Moushumi marry, to all outward appearance an ideal match: they are both highly educated young global citizens- she has studied in Paris-who have chosen each other and yet they are conforming to familial wishes by marrying within their culture. However, their happiness is short lived….The book ends with Gogol picking up the copy of ‘The Overcoat’ by his namesake which has father gave him, searching for a further key to understanding his father, finally showing him the ultimate respect by reading this story, so important to him. I found myself more engaged with the first half of this book than the second- the story of Ashoke and Ashima coming to terms with the States and their lives far from the families they love, the childhood of Gogol and his sister Sonia moving through both cultures. The American characters in contrast seemed to me superficially drawn, as well as the women being invariably slim and beautiful, and I found myself uninterested in them and consequently floundering around ,wondering where the novel was going at times. What the novel does well, however, is to depict Gogol’s  search to rename himself as one aspect of a broader drive to find his identity within a spectrum of cultural possibilities; and that this path is not linear and incremental but uneven, zigzagging and looping back on itself. I felt Gogol reading ‘The Overcoat’ at the end was not meant as a  final statement, but rather displayed a maturity and willingness to finally engage with his father as a part of this process.

For more on Jhumpa Lahiri’s work see my reviews of ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ and ‘The Lowland’


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