The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeMy library picked this book for their Big Read title this year, and so of course I picked it for my library book club to read and talk all about!

The discussion turned out kind of awkward, as only two people (neither of them regulars!) came, and one hadn’t read past maybe page ten, but the book itself was pretty darn good and I think had more people come it would have been a decent discussion as well.

The Namesake takes place over about 30 years, following the lives of a Bengali family from Calcutta to Boston to New York and beyond. The three main characters are Ashima, a woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage that will take her from her Calcutta home to far-off Boston but strives to make the best of it; Ashoke, the man Ashima marries who is very happy to be so far from home and who once very nearly died in a train accident; and (mostly) Gogol, their son, who gets his weird name from the author of the book his dad was reading at the time of the accident and who spends all of his life trying to reconcile his Bengali roots and his American upbringing, with more or less predictable results.

“Predictable results?” I hear you saying. “I thought you said this book was pretty darn good.”

Well, yes. The plot, what little there is, is pretty standard. Immigrant parents have American kid, he rebels against his parents’ values and goals for him, he has a series of relationships (some ill-advised), at the end of the book he has more respect for his parents and their lives than he previously had.

But! The characters are super interesting, Gogol foremost to me because he follows a similar path with his name as I did, shunning the name he grew up with to choose his own name and create his own identity. I was going to say I never went so far as to legally change my name and then I remembered that in fact, I got married and changed my last name, so. I am fully on board with the story of how a person’s name impacts their life.

And it’s a fascinating topic in this book, especially, as Gogol’s name comes out of a Bengali naming tradition that I can’t quite wrap my head around, which is that a person gets a “good name”, like Ashima, to put on birth certificates and passports and school papers and whatnot, and a “pet name”, like Monu, that everyone who actually knows you calls you. In this book, Gogol is meant to be a pet name, but Gogol’s parents take too long coming up with an acceptable good name and they, and he, end up stuck with this one, at least until Gogol turns 18 and can fix it himself.

But back to the characters — I love Gogol’s parents, too, who could easily have been left out in favor of Gogol’s story, but whom we see adapting in their own ways to American life and carving out a semblance of home with the apparently fairly large Bengali community in eastern Massachusetts. Ashoke’s train accident story and his reticence to share it with his son rings very true, as does Ashima’s propensity for feeding too much food to family, friends, and strangers.

Also delightful is Lahiri’s writing, which isn’t beautiful in the “here, look at this particular sentence and adore it” sort of way, but which, when all those sentences combine, is a subtly descriptive and engaging sort of writing that I just fall for every time. If Lahiri’s writing were a voice, I would probably listen to that voice read the phone book, as they say. Is there a better analogy for that? I bet there is, and I bet Lahiri could tell me what it is.

I’d read and loved Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” in some collection I can’t even remember ages and ages ago, but somehow never read any more of her work until this book. This vast oversight is going on my “Vast Oversights to Rectify in the Soon-Time” list, for sure.

Recommendation: To read when you’re looking for a quiet family story, or if you want to think to hard about what life would be like if your parents had just named you something different.

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