The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri


The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a great story. It provides a compelling answer to the 400 year old question, “What’s in a Name?”

In The Namesake, Lahiri enriches the themes that made her collection an international bestseller: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflicts of assimilation, and, most poignantly, the tangled ties between generations. Here again Lahiri displays her deft touch for the perfect detail — the fleeting moment, the turn of phrase — that opens whole worlds of emotion.

The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name.

Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves.

I had initially struggled with whether to make this a 3 or 4 star read but I realized that for as much as my own experience made the story not new for me, sitting down to write the review and seeing the tangles with my experience made me reflect on my life in a way that no other book had asked me to do, thus revealing the right choice. It is definitely worth all four stars.

While I do identify with many aspects of the story and Gogol’s struggle with his name, I hesitate to think I have some sort of rare connection with it. Yes, this is an immigration story, but in the US, so many of us having immigration in our not-too-distant past. Gogol is not the one to emigrate to the US, he is a part of the acclimation process and it takes much longer for a family to acclimate than people who have “always” been here realize. I think there are plenty of Americans, even white Americans, who have immigration stories in their histories that are close enough to recall, close enough to be little bits of family lore, close enough to identify with parts of Gogol’s struggle.

For me, this story didn’t hit me right away when I was listening to it. It hit me with all the questions afterward. It made me think about the path I had to take to recognizing my own name as something that actually identifies me, to recognizing the way it represents a compromise between the cultures and histories of my parents as had the process of naming my son. It made me think of those bits of family lore that are part of the immigration stories in my family, the things the family had let go of in order to acclimate and the things they could assimilate and the things that would always keep us at least a little different. Though the story is very much about the Ganguli’s, the writing is done in such a way that it also made me feel like the story really brings the reader into their world.

It’s about understanding each other and going out on a limb for each other and getting passed our own perspectives to see how the places we are change us and what we expect for ourselves and each other. Each member of the family is fully formed and have their own ideas about their places in the world, what they are and what they should be. Each member sees the others a little differently. Sometimes it feels like no one family member understands any of the others and that is a part of the magic of the story. You feel for all of them, for all of their misunderstandings, for all of their missed chances and all of their triumphs. With that, it makes you not only contemplate what is in a given name, but what is in a family name. What did it mean to be Ganguli? What does it mean to be a member of any family?

I love that the book leaves the reader with personal questions. I love that the story shows the reader so much about what it really means to start a new life in a new country and for your children to not understand anything about you. I love that the story shows the reader so much about what it is like to be a kid with parents who are different from all the other parents, with customs that no one else has to abide by, with expectations that are different put upon them.

I listened to the audiobook, read by Sarita Choudhury. I love her voice and her reading style. This is the second audio of hers that I’ve listened to, the first being The God of Small Things last month.

This book was on two reading challenges for me, Litsy A to Z and Read Harder 2017 (task 5). I borrowed it from my local library, but if you’re more of the purchasing type, click on the cover and you will be redirected to the BookLikes page where they have lots of purchase options.


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