A friend in undergrad recommended I read this novel and I’m sad it took me this long to read it. The Namesake is one of the most beautifully and eloquently written novels I have read this year, if not ever.
There is something so simple and yet strikingly intricate in Lahiri’s prose. I can only compare her to the lyrical like prose I’ve read from many Irish authors. I found myself repeating sentences in my head because of their artful construction. The foreign names, foods, and customs interwoven with the familiar places and customs created a story I couldn’t put down. I’ve compared Jhumpa Lahiri to Jane Austen, in the ordinariness of what she writes and her style, and I stand by this, but it is the lives and deaths—the full picture, rather than the snapshot—at which Lahiri excels.
The Namesake is the story of the Ganguli family, from Ashoke’s childhood and his marriage to Ashima and the subsequent birth of Gogol (Nikhil) and Sonali (Sonia) and their lives and stories. Taking place in both India (Calcutta) and the US (Boston, Cambridge, Chicago, New York City) the setting provides a perfect backdrop for the first and second generation immigrants. Ashima’s longing to return to India and Gogol’s internal struggle of identity (he’s a first generation Bengali American named after a Russian author) provide the novel with an intensity that at times leaves the reader smiling out of sadness and crying out of happiness.
Overall, I believe the novel is about the journey of adaptation, there is the physical and mental adaptation of Ashoke and Ashima to a new country, a new language, and a new culture; and there is the mental adaptation of being an American-Born Confused Desi ABCD (second or further generation born Southeast Asian immigrant). Gogol’s struggle to adapt between two cultures, between two generations, between two internal beings (Gogol/Nikhil), between two expectations shows what many descendants of immigrants face no matter where they are in the world.
As I read the novel I could not help but empathize with the characters and their experiences. Although I have never lived in a non-English speaking country or lived for as long as, or as far away as, the Ganguli’s from their home, it didn’t matter. Lahiri’s dexterity with the English language and her ability to craft a story so believable and so moving pulled me in and emotionally tied me to all of the characters.
If there is one thing I didn’t like about the novel, I would say it is the sadness it produces. Although there are plenty of ups in the novel, the downs moved me to tears on multiple occasions.
Recommendation: DEFINITELY READ IT. I will be purchasing a copy and re-reading it, and I’ve added her two collections of short stories to my list of books to read as well.