September 15, 2008
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
2003 Mariner Books
Finished on 9/12/08
Rating: 3/5 (Above Average)
Jhumpa Lahiri's debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, took the literary world by storm when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Fans who flocked to her stories will be captivated by her best-selling first novel, now in paperback for the first time. The Namesake is a finely wrought, deeply moving family drama that illuminates this acclaimed author's signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations.
The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays their hope of respecting old ways in a new world. And we watch as Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs.
With empathy and penetrating insight, Lahiri explores the expectations bestowed on us by our parents and the means by which we come to define who we are.
I was immediately captivated by this book, falling easily into Lahiri's marvelous storytelling with its vivid, cinemagraphic detail and sense of place. Yet, in spite of the ease of readability, the novel falls flat. It's a story of a life very much like everyone's: birth, childhood, college, career, dating, marriage, and death. Nothing remarkable occurs during the narrative. There is no suspense. No tension. No conflict. No resolution. The prose isn't even remarkable. And yet, Lahiri has the ability to draw her reader into Gogol's life; she makes us eager to see where it leads, eager to learn about Bengali customs.
I don't mind a quiet, contemplative novel; The Samurai's Garden comes to mind (although it is far superior to Lahiri's debut novel, with its evocative and lyrical prose). I enjoy learning about other cultures; Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is a superb example, with its fabulous characterization and richly drawn plot. However, The Namesake plods along, laboring under the weight of boring piles of insignificant, tiresome minutia. There's nothing to drive the story forward other than the all too-predictable sequence of events. I would've liked to have learned more about how the characters felt and their insights into love and life, rather than where they lived and what they ate. I wanted to known more about Ashima (Gogol's mother) and how she felt about her life in the United States instead of following Gogol, who, let's face it, is a pretty boring protagonist. Fortunately, Lahiri managed to maintain my interest enough so I could finish the book for my book club. I wonder if I would've completed it without that commitment. If anything, I'm inspired to re-read A Fine Balance. Now that's a great book!