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.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI don’t remember who recommended this to me when I was collecting book club titles, but THANK YOU. I picked it for one book club and loved the book and discussion so much that I used it to fill an empty slot in another book club a month later, and the discussion was still top-notch with a different set of readers. But, to get to these awesome discussions, you have to read a pretty devastating book, so, be prepared.

The book opens with the lines “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so you think you know maybe what you’re getting into from the start. Lydia’s dead, you say? Well, let’s find out who did that and call this mystery solved, shall we?

Oh, you want to talk about some other stuff first? Okay, sure, we can talk about the fact that Lydia’s grown up in a mixed family, with an American-born Chinese dad and a white Southern mom, in the 1970s, in small-town Ohio. Yeah, that’s pretty tough. The parents met at Harvard, though? That’s pretty progressive! Oh, but the mom gave up med school to have Lydia’s older brother? And the dad got passed over for a faculty position at Harvard and had to take the Ohio job to pay the bills? Ugh, lame again. Oh, and the parents are both projecting their own insecurities onto their middle child, making her feel obligated to become awesome at both making friends and doing math and science? Man, maybe Lydia killed herself over all this!

Wait, no, did she? No, she’s fine. She’s got friends. Even a boyfriend! She’s been hanging out with that nice… weird… loner kid from down the street, whom Lydia’s brother absolutely hates… and who’s been acting really strangely since Lydia died, like, extra strange, like maybe he’s keeping secrets about that night… Uh-oh. And what’s this? The cops are talking to Lydia’s dad about the last time he filed a missing persons report? For Lydia’s mother? But she’s here, she’s fine… right? Well, she’s not going to be when she finds out Lydia’s dad is having an affair with his TA, that’s for sure.

There is SO MUCH going on in this book! Mostly it’s about Lydia’s parents and their myriad insecurities and hoo boy if you weren’t already second guessing your every thought and action watching these people do it might make you start. When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, “If you ever decide to leave me, at least LEAVE A DANG NOTE,” and he was like, “I’m never letting you read books again.” Which seems like maybe a good idea, sometimes.

The big theme of the book is that feeling of being an outsider — Lydia’s dad as a Chinese man in a white man’s world (literally, the man teaches American Studies, let’s just start there, shall we), Lydia’s mom as a scientist and budding doctor trapped in the life of a doting housewife, Lydia’s brother as the second fiddle to his younger sister, Lydia’s younger sister as the strangely ignored youngest sibling. All of these people, living together, feeling completely alone. Normally I would be shaking my fist at the sky at all these people who need to just talk to each other, gosh darn it, but in this book it seems so natural. And depressing.

AND THEN THE END. This is where I shook my fist, let me tell you. I may have literally yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I may still be angry about this ending today, not because it’s bad or unbelievable but because it is TOO believable and TOO soul-crushing and it might be supposed to be a bittersweet ending but all I feel is bitter, for Lydia, who is a fake person and see above about how I maybe shouldn’t read so many books.

But you! You should read this book! And then come tell me all your feels about it! And I will tell you even more feels that I have, which I know you think is impossible after this post, but I have them!

Recommendation: READ THIS. But not if you’re already sad. Or especially happy; I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Aim for a mid-level contentedness, maybe?

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

Run, by Ann Patchett

RunI’ve had Ann Patchett on my list of authors to get around to for some time now, so I’m very glad my book club chose this book and gave me that push to actually do so. But now I think I have to put her on my list of authors to give another shot, because this book? Didn’t really do it for me.

It’s a weird book to try to talk about (note to book clubs: does not make a great meeting), because while I read it eagerly over the course of four hours or so, I managed to come away with no strong feelings about it.

The plot is… weird. It centers on this wealthy political family in Boston with a dad and three sons, two of whom are adopted and black in an otherwise very white family. The dad dotes on the adopted sons; the biological son is kind of a screwup. Then the dad and the two adopted sons go to a Jesse Jackson event and afterward one of the sons is very nearly killed by a car except that he gets pushed out of the way at the last moment… by his biological mother.

Now, that sounds really cool, I think, but the book does not do the cool things with it that I would have wanted. The mother stays mostly unconscious in the hospital for the duration of the book, so we don’t get terribly much from her except for a strange interlude where she talks to her dead best friend. Instead we focus on the mother’s daughter, who knows that the brothers are her brothers and has apparently been keeping an eye on them with her mother all her life and is now being taken care of by this family that apparently didn’t have enough issues already.

The book does some interesting things. It opens with this fantastic story about a statue that I probably could have read an entire novel about. I can see it doing cool things with repetition and layered meanings. It talks about race, class, family dynamics, how our choices affect other people, all that good stuff. But for all the talking it does, I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.

In our book club meeting, my friend who picked the book mentioned that this book reads a lot like a fairy tale, with allegories and magical realism and things that just don’t make sense if you’re trying to read this as a straightforward novel. Unfortunately, the allegories of the book are largely political, calling to mind to my friends the Kennedys and other politicians and their various scandals, but my understanding of these references ended at knowing that Ted Kennedy was a person, so.

So onto the list of authors to try again Patchett goes. Maybe if I can read her awesome writing with some references that I understand, I’ll do a lot better!

Recommendation: For people who know politics, probably, and people interested in some weirdly twisty plot lines.

Rating: 6/10

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich AsiansI vaguely recall hearing about this book before my book club picked it, maybe just the title, but it was in no way on my giant list of books to read, like, ever.

Mistake! Huge mistake! Don’t make the same one!

I’ll admit that when I opened the book and there was a family tree staring at me, with footnotes, I was like, what is this I can’t even. I scanned over the tree and didn’t understand a bit of it and never went back. I have a decent head for family relations, so I never needed it to figure out who was who or anything like that, but I kind of wish I had gone back to see what those footnotes were all about.

The book itself starts out in the past, with a brief story wherein several of the family tree people attempt to check into a hotel in London. They are disheveled from walking rather than taking a taxi, so the manager is like, sopping wet Chinese people? Yeah, I don’t see a reservation here, sorry. Unfortunately for him, a quick phone call secures the sale of the hotel to one of those family members, and he is promptly fired. Oops.

In the present, this giant extended family is still “richer than God” and living all over the world, but everyone’s coming back to the family manse in Singapore for a family friend’s 888-guest wedding. One of everyone is a fellow called Nick Young, who has been living in New York City and working as an academic, having lots of money but spending it quite wisely. He’s got a nice ABC girlfriend called Rachel, also an academic, and he convinces her to take her summer off and travel around Asia with him, you know, meet the family and stuff. It’s that latter part that causes all the problems.

Nick and Rachel are the main story, but the narrative trades off between them and several other family members, showing how each of them has chosen to use their wealth and family prestige. There’s Astrid, who buys million-dollar dresses and tells her frugal husband that she’s splurged and spent thousands on them, and who soon finds out that said husband is maybe not as committed to their relationship as she is. There’s Eddie, who dresses his tiny children in bespoke suits and rues the fact that his friend has a 2000-square-foot closet (that’s three times the size of my apartment!) and he doesn’t. But most importantly, there’s Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, who understands the significance of bringing a girl home to meet your family better than Nick does and who has hired a private investigator to find out just what secrets Rachel is hiding that will keep Nick from wanting to marry her.

It’s all absolutely fascinating. Kwan does a great job of making all of his crazy rich Asians at least subtly different, with some of them conspicuously consuming everything and some of them spending no more than they absolutely have to and some right in between, and all of them have opinions about how everyone else is spending their money and really, the money part of the story could take place with middle-class Americans arguing about buying hundred-dollar dresses or whatever but it’s way more awesome to be arguing about private jets and molecular gastronomy. Right? And it’s also fascinating to look at the “Asians” part of the title and see how much difference there is between being Mainland Chinese and Singaporean and Taiwanese and Hong Kongese, at least in the eyes of fabulously wealthy old-money Singaporeans.

Most of the book is wonderfully ridiculous, with metaphorical catfights and literal dogfights and crazy rich Asians doing crazy rich Asian things with great gusto, but it kind of jumps the tracks at the end with the reveal of Rachel’s secrets and the sudden seriousness with which the book starts taking itself. But once you get past all that weird stuff, the ending is actually pretty well done and mostly unexpected by me, so we’ll just ignore that whole storyline and call it a win. Yay wins!

Recommendation: For fans of over-the-top wealthy people and their foibles.

Rating: 9/10