Monday, August 6, 2007

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Title: The Namesake
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
ISBN: 0618485228
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company/2004
Rating: **1/2

'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 name. Gogol's parents choose a formal name for him just in time for him to go to kindergarten, but he refuses to answer to it. His teachers are on his side, instead of his parents', and they refuse to call him by the good name. Thus, Gogol's fate is sealed when he is five.

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.

When Gogol graduates from high school and is about to go to college, he legally changes his name to Nikhil, the name his parents tried to get him to accept in kindergarten. He thinks a fresh start is all he needs to be happy and well adjusted. Instead, though, Gogol finds himself floundering, feeling not only new at college and away from his parents for the first time ever, but also feeling as though he is a stranger to himself. Throughout the next twelve years, through college and relationships and entering the adult world of work, Gogol continues to struggle with his identity and with accepting the life and choices of his parents.

To be honest, I felt the main flaw of this entire book was the author's style of writing. It is boring. It is not driven. It tends to ramble on tediously, making even the tragic and touching moments of the book very dry and dispassionate. Overall, the book has an elitist feel to it. No one watched TV, everyone read. No one ate fast food; everyone made reservations at fancy restaurants.

The book uses a great many flashbacks, which stifles what little narrative drive there is. Very emotional scenes tend to be avoided in the present and discussed only in the past tense in a rather flat way. I read this book without difficulty but without much real feeling.