Being the child of immigrants is to be pulled in two
directions, even for highly educated and native-born Americans. The Namesake, the first novel of
Pulitzer Prize–winning short-story writer Jhumpa Lahiri, focuses on
Gogol and his Benjali Hindu family from Calcutta.
After an arranged marriage, Gogol’s parents emigrate to the Boston
area in the 1960s and have Gogol and then his sister. Following Bengali
tradition, they give their firstborn the “petname” Gogol — the father
credits a book of the Russian writer’s stories for saving his life — as
they await a letter with an elder’s choice for the baby’s “good” name.
The letter is lost in the mail, the grandmother dies, and the petname
sticks until Gogol, trying to reinvent himself, takes the name Nikhil
when he goes to university. He distances himself from his parents and
their culture, visiting home less, dating white women, and favoring
American food and music. When his father dies and Gogol regrets his
detachment, and when he falls for and marries a Bengali woman he’s
known since childhood, we think he might be integrating the strands of
his background. Then Lahiri shows us that it’s not so simple: the
marriage falls apart.
Readers will learn many details about Bengali culture and gain
insights into the conflicts of immigrants and their offspring. But The Namesake will appeal to readers
of any background because Lahiri enlarges it into a universal tale of
parents and children, of resistance to family expectations, and of the
desire to belong. It’s a moving novel with the elegant writing for
which Lahiri became known in Interpreter
of Maladies (1999), her award-winning short story collection.
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