Thursday, August 22, 2013

In so many ways, his family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another

Look at me, making an effort to make my reading less white. First Native Son and now Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. Don't worry, I've got all of the back-patting taken care of over here.

But seriously, I am trying expand my reading horizons. And I was lucky enough to win a copy of The Namesake from Jennifer over at Soy Chai Bookshelf awhile ago* and figured now was a good time to give it a try. I'd read Unaccustomed Earth a few years ago for my book/wine club and I'm like 90% sure I'd read an excerpt from Namesake in my American Lit II survey classes (cos the name Gogol rings a bell and yeah, bit of a unique name). So why not give the whole thing a try? It was excellent.

There's no real plot to The Namesake. Gogol's parents have an arranged marriage and they come from Calcutta to Cambridge. They have Gogol and his younger sister Sonia and Gogol grows up and has some girlfriends and gets married and, seriously plot-wise, nothing happens. But that's cool because plot is not the point here. It's a character study, and I was sucked in.

It's the story about being caught between two worlds, between too cultures and trying to fit in. It's about parents and children and families. It's about names.

Tradition says that one of the family elders will name the children, in this case Gogol's maternal great-grandmother is given the task. When it's time to leave the hospital and Ashima's grandmother's letter has yet to arrive, the Ganguli's are forced to put something on their son's birth certificate. His father Ashoke picks Gogol, after his favorite author Nikolai Gogol. This name is never meant to be permanent. It's just his pet name, the name his family will call him. The plan is once the letter from Ashima's grandmother comes they will make the necessary updates and Gogol will have his "good name", the name he'll use outside the family. But the letter never arrives and come the first day of school Gogol won't answer to the good name his parents picked, Nikhil, and the school uses the name Gogol for all of his records.

Gogol is obviously the main character here, but the story is not just about him. It's about his parents, before they came to America. It's about them clinging to old customs while at the same time embracing traditions of their new home. I loved the descriptions of the parties Ashima and Ashoke would throw, all of the food that they would make, their friends and their friends' families, other Bengali immigrants, everyone joined together by a common culture.

I was surprised when I finished the book how much I enjoyed it. Especially now as I try to put it into words because there isn't much that happens, I can't say I particularly related to the characters, or even that I'd want to hang out with them. I always wanted to see what would happen next. I never found myself reading the same paragraph again and again because my mind kept wandering away from the story. When I realized I only had a few pages left I was sad to see it end. I don't know that it's a book I will return to again and again, but I enjoyed this journey through it.

One thing I wanted to mention that really has less to do with this book than it does with literary fiction in general is whyyy can't there be a relationship where the two people dating/married actually like each other? They are in love and sincerely want to be together. There are no affairs, there's no grand disappointment when the honeymoon period wears off and they realized they've made a mistake. This isn't to fault Namesake for having this happen, it's just when the affair did happen I couldn't be too surprised. Because no relationship can be happy in lit fic.
*end spoilers and my rant*

*Did I tell you I got the book? Because if I didn't, sorry about that. I got the book.

Title quote from page 286

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003